Trading Card Spotlight - Howard Scott Warshaw

Our next Trading Card Spotlight features Howard Scott Warshaw who currently is displayed on card number 208, from the Superstars of 2012 Collection.  Howard is a true pioneer in the gaming industry. As one of the original Atari programmers for the Atari 2600, Howard has created such classics as Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.  He also has written three books, with another in progress, in addition to producing and directing documentaries. One of his proudest documentaries is “Once Upon Atari”, which documents the life of working at Atari back in the early 1980’s.  Howard is now a licensed psychotherapist in a private practice specializing in the high stress and anxiety of living in the tech world of Silicon Valley.

Do you prefer arcade or console gaming and why?

Back in the day, I preferred arcade games.  Arcade games to me were just juicier.  I like the variable controller scheme, because you really didn’t have that with home games. Not early on, not with the VCS. As it went on with the more elaborate console games like the PS2, I definitely preferred some of my home games over arcade games because arcade games can’t really afford to give you an ongoing elaborate experience because they have to get you out of there, take your quarter and keep going. Arcades games are about making revenue, home games are about delivering an experience that you pay for once and maximizing the experience.  That is more my style. 

Do you remember when you played your first video game and what do you remember about the experience?

I do remember playing my first video game, it was a Magnavox Odyssey system when I was in high school way back when, it was fun.   It was cool, but it was basically just Pong, there wasn’t a lot of dynamism to it.  I remember thinking, “this is cool, this is interesting”.   A much more significant moment was the first time I saw a Space Invaders arcade cabinet.  I remember, I was in college, and I had been avoiding computers like the plague. I had nothing to do with computers at this point.  I walked into a Blimpies, in New Orleans, and I saw this thing standing there.  It was a Space Invaders machine, and I walked up and looked and saw what was going on with that.   To me this was a real Video Game, and I looked at that and I thought, this is going to be Huge.  I knew that and I was right.  Then I went on with my regular studies and had nothing to do with computers and video games for at least another year.  Before I had anything to do with this, I just knew this was going to be enormous, and that was my real impression of video games.

What are your opinions about today’s generation of video games and how do you compare them to older, classic games?

Now vs. then is very interesting to me because the way I see it, video games started at a simple place with a basic one screen, what I call How-High-Is-Up gaming, where your goal is to keep playing and getting a higher score.  It was very simple and fundamental, and the goal was to create new things. Every game had the goal to do something new that no one has seen before.  We were still trying to explore and define the medium. Video games were a new medium, that is what was exciting about creating them. What happened is, as the industry matured, as most industries do, it becomes a narrower cast.  There isn’t much focus on innovation and creating new gameplay. It is more about refining approved and existing validated gameplay and just moving on with that, having properties, having legacies.  That is fine for a lot of people.  Modern video games are so much bigger and so much more elaborate, I am not going to say that the games we did originally were better because that is just not true.  There are phenomenal games that are coming out now, but it’s a very different gaming experience, and it’s not about innovation. It’s also a huge monolithic thing where the amount of ownership makers have in their product is diluted and reduced.  At the same time, console gaming evolved way out of the class of what original auteur game style making was back at Atari.  On the other hand, there is another branch of video game evolution which includes handheld devices and app gaming.  There you have a return to the ability of one individual or a few individuals to actually create and make a game. Innovation and new gameplay are experienced and experimented with there.  The way I look at it, it came full circle.  It went further out away from what it was and then kind of branched back to the original style of innovation and creative design, which is what I really thrived on and valued.  Another thing you could say is that just like video gaming went full circle and returned to its origin, I kind of did too.  Originally as a game maker at Atari, I used to make entertainment for nerds, but now as a Silicon Valley Therapist, I actually make their lives better.  It is an interesting way to return to the people I was working with and for so long ago.

What made you want to get into the gaming business?

I got into computers, not really gaming, but computers and got my master’s in computer engineering at Tulane University.  I was working at Hewlett Packard and I was dying because all the joy and excitement I had found in computing had gone away, because what I specialized in my college education, was microprocessor based real time control systems, which is another term for a video game. I did not recognize it that way, I just thought I was doing very large-scale uninteresting programming application at Hewlett Packard. All the joy I had found in computing was lost, and I was lost. I got really depressed, and I used to act out.  Whatever was going on at work, I was a wacky guy and used to do some wacky stuff. One day a guy I was working with came up to me and goes, “You know, I was telling my wife a Howard story last night.”  People used to tell Howard stories because of my acting out.  She said, “Well that is something that goes on all the time where I work.”  I said to my co-worker, “Where is that?”  He said, “Atari.” So, I went and interviewed with Atari because I thought it would be a fun place for me to work. I like games, I enjoyed playing games, but it never occurred to me I would get a job making games. So, I went to Atari because I thought it would be a fun place to work.  As I interviewed there, I realized that they do microprocessor based real time control systems, so I realized that was a place I needed to be.  That is what got me pointed at Atari and wanting to work there. Of course, after all the interviews, they rejected me. Fortunately, I was able to talk them out of it.

What is a funny story that happened working at Atari that most people would not know?

That is a tough question because there are so many stories.  I will tell you one story that is in the book.  There are three kinds of parties at Atari.  There is the major corporate event type party, which are very stayed and laid back, you really can’t do anything because everyone is there. Then there would be the very small casual parties here and there which were all about drugs and things like that. Those weren’t really amazing, they were fun to be a part of, but they are not really fabulous stories.  It’s a bunch of stories of people sitting around and talking about stuff. The really interesting parties were at the department level, when you would get a group or department party. Then what we would do is rent some place, go to a restaurant or something, and those would usually get pretty raucous.  There weren’t many places we went to twice, let’s put it that way. Once, they didn’t really want to do that again, even though we would tip them pretty nicely.  One of the classic moments was a VCS department party at this restaurant and it turned into a game of chicken, parking lot chicken. Where the idea is to get people on your shoulders and knock people off. Most people play that in pools, we were playing that in a parking lot.  Everyone was wasted enough that it seemed ok.

If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would it be?

Stripes.

When you were younger, did you ever think you would be on a video game trading card?

It depends on what you mean by younger, if you go actually young like in my teens, I didn’t even know there would be video games.  Trading cards never would have occurred to me. When I was at Atari, I never thought I would still be talking about games, dealing with games, or have video game cards. I was there at the moment, just doing what I was doing, game to game.  The idea of something beyond that literally did not occur to me. As evidence in the new book, when I talk about my last day at Atari, because when I left Atari there was nothing. Nothing in my consciousness about what was next. All I knew was Atari was gone and that was pretty devastating to me.

Do you believe some video games are too violent and lead to violence in America today?

You are asking a therapist about this, so I have a lot to say about this.  This is something that has come up in trainings that I have had as a therapist. It is a very interesting topic.  Here is the thing about violence in video games.   First, off the bat, let’s just say a lot of people talk about the research that demonstrates violence in video games makes people violent.  There are two things I want to talk about. The first is, there was 2004 Harvard meta-study where they reviewed all these studies that show that video game violence creates violence in kids. It showed that it is absolutely not true. In fact, the incidence of violence in violent video game players is likely lower than the incidence of violence in non-video game players. It is not supported by the data, let’s put it that way. Another thing is a famous quote, it may be by Dick Cavett from a long time ago, he said, “If television had that much impact on our behavior, comedy would be breaking out in the streets.” The truth of it is, the research is very poor, it commits a major fallacy in reasoning.  Most of the research, most of the people who think video games lead to violence, arrive at that conclusion because they look at violent offenders, and they go “Do you guys play video games? Oh yes, we play very violent video games.” Ah ha, see, violent video games cause violence.  That is false logic.  You must look at people who played violent games and see how many of them committed violence, and that number is very small.  On one hand, people make the argument that if you are normalizing violence in a video game then you become more violent and that’s what you do. On the other side, there is another argument that says people have violent impulses, violence in video games give the people a chance to exorcise those impulses and clear them out so they don’t need to resort to them in day to day life. Another thing that comes up, in therapy trainings they talk about video games and violence and that always gets me going.  These are people who don’t know about video games presenting to people who don’t know about video games.  What they usually present are things that don’t actually exist in gaming.  When they show examples of violence in video games, I recognize the examples as games that were never released, or games that were withdrawn because they felt the stuff in the games was inappropriate.  Another point is that if you look at the numbers, what the numbers really say is that video games have no effect on violence. If you separate the video game population from the non-video game population, they are violent at very close to the same rate. 

Which company today, in your opinion, makes the best games and why?

For a while, I thought Rockstar was really in the lead, produced some great stuff.  Blizzard does some great stuff. It’s not really about the companies putting out the games, it’s about the developers who are creating them and there are a lot of small developers.  Now that you have the ability for an incredible number of people to just jump in an create a number of concepts and trying new things, it takes a lot of experimentation to get there, but occasionally you will see an Angry Birds or things like that.  Things that just pop out that are fun and clever and fresh concepts.  If you want to talk about all time game design and what is really great, I will tell you what I think is the one ultimate video game that is the cleanest, simplest, most engaging design that you can do on almost any hardware for any system anywhere.  From the simplest handheld breakout hardware to anything more sophisticated is Tetris.  Tetris is the perfect example of the ultimate video game design.  It’s very simple, very basic, but it plays enormously well and does not get tiresome.  You can always come back to it, and it’s an ongoing challenge, I just think it’s a tremendous example of a classic game design.  If you want talk about more modern game designs, I think of Grand Theft Auto 3.  It will always stand out as the transition between 2D and 3D gaming. It was the combination of one of the most brilliant innovations in actual game design and structure and one of the most reprehensible game theming’s ever done. It’s a horrific theming for a clever and innovated gameplay, it’s not an innovator in technology, but an innovator in game design which to me is more important than technologies. You can always increase the technology, there is no gamble in increasing technology. It is the design innovation that is not easy to come by, and GTA 3 took a huge step forward, between that and Vice City. That just put Rockstar ahead of everyone in terms of people who can come up with really solid innovative gameplay that moves the quality of gaming forward, I was very impressed with that.

Movies or other forms of entertainment cause more violence in society, wouldn’t you agree?

Movies invented it. Media and movies are what started the violence talks, media has become entirely about entertainment, not substantially informational.  You can find information in it, but mostly it is about entertainment and drawing an audience. You don’t draw an audience with normal or uninteresting activities. You draw an audience with extraordinary and unusual things.  So, what happens is the news looks for extraordinary things, typically outrageous and difficult and threatening and scary things. If you get a steady diet of that, you may start to believe that kind of thing is normal.  So, you could say media does impact people to the extent it controls our fears and makes people more fearful. It does not seem to make them more violent.  What can make people more violent is losing a sense of being a part of community or being connected to other people.  One thing technology, not video games, has done is break down the sense of community by creating an artificial sense of online community, which is reducing the amount of actual contact and maybe impacting the level of empathy that people have. When you take empathy out of the picture, that’s when violence can enter the picture substantially.  There is a social working theory of why the world is more violent and it is not about video game but is about technology and media.

What got you started in the filmmaking business?

After Atari, I got a real estate salesman license, then I got a real estate brokerage license, I hated real estate.  I got back into tech and worked in compilers, industrial robotics, video display, communications. I worked all over the computer industry.  I needed more creative stuff, so I started writing, taking pictures, I did some professional photography.  I wrote some books on various topics and then I decided to go to school and get certified in video production because what I wanted to do, I wanted to make “Once Upon Atari.” I wanted to do a documentary about what it was like to be at Atari because no one really told the story truthfully about what was going on at Atari. There was a lot of media about it, but it was all so far off base, it was so wrong, and it wasn’t even nearly as interesting as the actuality of it. I thought it was time to tell the true story and I thought it was worth becoming a video producer to do it, so I did.

What sparked your interest in the profession of therapy?

I was always interested in getting into the therapy profession, when I was 17 years old, a friend of mine and I were thinking about creating our own personality theory.  I was always interested in it but once I hit college, I completely veered away from it.  Just went in different directions. Ultimately what happened was around 2006, 2007 a lot of other things in my life were just not working.  I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to go. After experimenting in other industries, I was having trouble getting back into tech.  I felt I had to get back into tech, but really didn’t want to.  At one point someone sat me down and said, look, what do you want to do?  I said, “I want to find a job in tech.”  They said, “Not what you feel you have to do, but what do you want to do?” If you could do anything with no restrictions, what would you want to do?  Without missing a beat, I just said instantly, “I want to be a psychotherapist.” I always wanted to be a psychotherapist. They convinced me to just at least start looking into it and it was the most amazing thing.  As soon as I started looking into becoming a therapist, everything that wasn’t working in my life started to fall in line and created this perfect path into becoming a therapist, and I did. I never regretted it.  The first time I have been really happy with my job experience since Atari.

Who is your favorite video game character of all time and what makes that character special?

If I would have to pick a favorite game character, it might be Jak and Daxter.  I really always like them.  There was something about the Jak and Daxter thing, more of how it operated in the game world because the character wasn’t as fully developed itself as it is in a lot of other games now. I enjoyed Jak and Daxter tremendously. It has great feel to it, enormous feel.  

If you were to design a game today, what would it be about and what platform/system would you choose?

I am probably going to design a game soon, I am not telling a lot of people this yet, but I am telling you.  I have had a design for a Yars’ Revenge sequel that I had floating around my head for many years.   It provides a new gameplay that I have not seen anywhere. I think it may come out originally as a 2600 homebrew. I can’t really call it Yars’ Revenge as I don’t own that property, but I could call it Ray’s Revenge or HSW’s Revenge.

You are known for making Atari games from movies, but do you like it when Hollywood makes a movie from the video game? 

Movies from video games are really just movies, I don’t see movies from video game to be any special genre.  When you are talking about making a movie from another source material, as long as that story material has some sort of storyline suggestion, then the movie could be great, or it could suck depending on the quality of the writers, directors and actors that you put in the movie. Well, they did Tron a long time ago, it was the first movie from a video game.  It was a good movie, they did some pretty cool stuff, but look at Pirates of the Caribbean.  Here is a great movie, based on a theme park ride. When I think of movies to video games, I think it’s a perfectly viable way to start a concept for a movie, but I don’t think it will have anything to do with the overall quality of the movie. It’s great to make movies from video games, but the video game will not have any impact. It might impact the sales of the movie, but I think the movie makers will be the ones to impact the quality of the movie.

What games today do you play and what are your favorite genres of games?

Some of my favorite games now are Trivia Quiz and Sudoku.  I must admit I like Bejeweled and a lot of the Candy Crush type games. What I like are the games that are simple, quick play that is sort of like a mental exercise and mixes fast response with quick reads and quick strategizing. I am not playing that many elaborate console games these days as I am too busy doing a lot of other stuff. I may pick up a game after I am finished writing this book.

What does it take to get a career in video game programming, and what advice would you give a person who would like to get into the industry today?

What it takes to get into the game industry is tremendous resiliency and commitment.  That is what it takes. Obviously, you have to get some education and you have to develop some skills.  Nowadays you have to choose if you want to go the artistic route or the programming route, although they are converging to some degree.  You have to pick a skill, you have to own it, but it’s a brutal industry.  It demands a lot of people and it doesn’t have the payoff that it used to in my opinion.  You have to really want to do this, not just think games are cool and it would be fun to make them, you really need to be ready to pay for your art and suffer for your work. You will suffer, I can promise you that.  If you get through that, what is cool about it is that you are in an entertainment industry, and when you are in an entertainment industry you get to be a part of something that people recognize and see and if it’s good it creates value.  They think it’s cool, and some of that cool inures to you. When you are a part of something that gets a lot of focus and attention in the world and people really think it’s neat, and that is great, and when people ask what you do,  you say I worked on this and they say “ I know this, and that is cool.” Well that is a nice place to be in your life, but you pay a price to get there. My advice would be to be very realistic about the fact that you are making a huge high-stakes trade off.  You are going to pay a lot in personal endurance, but you may win a lot in terms of esteem, gratitude and pleasure. 

Where do you see gaming in the next 20 years?

I see gameplay in the next 20 to 30 years leaving consoles and stepping into virtual reality and augmented reality.  I think that’s really where it is at, particularly augmented reality.  The idea that a game will shift, because gaming now is about operating within a specified provided environment. I think what gaming is going to become is going to be modifying your current environment, and that’s going to be a new style of gaming. It isn’t about operating within the environment, it’s about changing the environment I am in to work through the game. One interesting example that might be relevant to some degree is the game Portal. It is a very different concept in what a game is and how you approach it. You don’t see that very much anymore. The great thing about being back at Atari in the day, is that every game was supposed to be like that. Each game was supposed to be something really fresh and new, and through the years people have tried most of the concepts. It does take longer to come up with something that is really fresh, but you will see a different approach to gaming and what a game is and what that means with augmented reality. It’s also going to change day to day life because that is the kind of technology that isn’t just going to be about gaming, it’s going to literally change the world. Virtual reality is going to remain a marginal thing, but augmented reality is going to change our day to day lives in terms of all the things you are able to do because you will have a little visual guide to be able to instruct you and see how and what you are doing and be able to correct and guide you. Suddenly a lot of things that most people are not capable of doing, they will be capable of doing.  That also has scary aspects, but it has wonderful aspects too. We are realizing science fiction. The world is entering a realm where science visions of the past are easily realized now, and that is a really weird and exciting place to live. 

https://onceuponatari.com/