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Playing God

In his desert workshop in New Mexico, Jason Rohrer designs ingenious, cutting-edge video games that combine the simple pleasures of gaming and the complications of everyday life; many call the finished product high art video games that combine


IT’S MY LAST DAY in Angola, and so far the trip has been a complete disaster. I’ve secured almost no diamonds for my employers in London, while the dapper Antwerp dealers have been stuffing their coffers. Finally, a massive cache of black market ice opens up in an eastern province, and in a last-ditch effort to secure it for myself I embark on a complex misdirection campaign, bribing the Dutch prospectors and sending my own on a wild goose chase around the country. Against all odds, it works. When the diamonds go to auction, I bid unopposed.

“I can’t believe you’re pulling this off,” Jason Rohrer says, looking over my shoulder. He’s been watching me play a game he’s developing called Diamond Trust, biting his lip when I make a bad move and attempting, futilely, to provide pointers as I jab my stylus at the Nintendo DS screen.

We’re sitting in his office, a tiny cinder block cube in his house in Las Cruces, N.M. His desk is a thicket of wires, connecting a Nintendo dev kit, a modified DS with an artery of cords coming out the back and a trio of aging computers chugging along. One of them, a 10-year-old laptop that Rohrer received from his sister, has a busted hinge and needs to be propped open with an award. Aside from the wire clutter, it’s a Spartan space.

If Rohrer seems overly invested in how I do in a 15-minute playthrough of a video game, it should be noted that the game is one that he designed and built from scratch. In the past hours, he has shown me stacks of papers from the planning phases — notes about cognition and epistemology, aborted alternate designs — pen and paper versions played through at the kitchen table with his wife and kids. He references magazine stories about conflict diamonds, rattles off obscure game theory terms and explicates the tortured process he’s undergone to distribute his creation after parting ways with its original backer, a large game developer called Majesco Entertainment.

In short, Rohrer has poured a lot of effort into this game.

That might seem excessive if we were just talking about a video game, but it would make a lot more sense if we were talking about art. Rohrer is on the vanguard of a new movement in video games, one that eschews their schlock origins for complex, carefully considered experiences that owe as much to Kandinsky and John Cage as to Pac-Man and Duke Nukem.

His creations address such weighty subjects as marriage, the impulses to have children and be an artist, the difficulties of shared community space and, yes, conflict diamonds in Africa.

That might all seem a bit, well, niche. However, in recent months art games have been making strides into the mainstream. In 2008, Rohrer’s friend Jonathan Blow released Braid — a Mario Bros.–style game in which players’ motivations for rescuing the heroine are increasingly called into question. To date, it has made over $5 million and garnered near-universal “game of the year” commendations. While indie and art game designers have in the past been relegated to side tents at game industry expos, Rohrer addressed the Game Developers Conference this March three times and beat out Doom designer (and gaming megastar) John Romero for a conceptual game prize. Earlier this year, Swedish programmer Markus Persson blew all indie game records out of the water with Minecraft, which has, to date, made over $33 million.

A prime example of this new aesthetic would be Passage, Rohrer’s first major entrée into the world of art games. Designed for GAMMA 256, a curated show in Montreal in 2007, it is abrasively lo-fi, with Atari-style graphics and chip tune music written by Rohrer himself. In it, you play a tiny pixilated guy centered on the left side of a narrow stripe of screen. Moving around a map, you find treasure chests to up your score. You come across a female character, and if you walk up to her, a heart appears, and she joins you in your journey.

But that company comes at a cost: The two of you can’t get to all of the treasure chests you could on your own. Eventually, another harsh reality dawns on you. Once on the far left side of the screen, you inexorably make your way over to the middle and then the right. Your hair changes from blond to gray. When you reach the far right edge, your wife turns into a tombstone. Then you do. Almost mockingly, the game reveals your score. Game over.

If that all feels a bit chilling, then you’ve go en the point. Rohrer has described Passage as a “memento mori,” and when he talks about it, it’s clear that the game is something very personal for him. “I just remember having this feeling as I programmed it,” he tells me with a smile. “I knew it was the perfect way to express this thing inside of me. I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m making this.’”

Others couldn’t believe it either. After releasing it for free online, Rohrer watched as word of it spread from his friends’ blogs to major gaming news outlets to, eventually, the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and The New York Times. Within months, Passage had been canonized, lauded by top game designers in speeches at the Game Developers Conference and referenced by top-shelf developers as something to aspire to. Roger Ebert, who had previously drawn the ire of fanboys by claiming that games could never be art, was inundated by demands that he play it until the crotchety reviewer saw a video of the game and abandoned the debate entirely. Overnight, Rohrer had become one of the figureheads of the art game movement.

If that’s not necessarily a mantle Rohrer asked for, it’s one he’s particularly well suited to take up. Standing 6 feet, 8 inches in a worn blue hoodie and jeans — a uniform he wears literally every day — he looks more like a mountaineer than the stereotypical Cheetos-chewing programmer. He speaks carefully but relentlessly, drawing on a tall stack of books, CDs, magazines and games to illustrate ideas. Conversations drift laterally from topic to topic. An observation about his sleeping infant, Novy, morphs into a discussion of the video game concept of “perma-death” — that is, when a game gives no extra lives, causing players to value their one — before turning to his research of the secret Rosicrucian Order.

Five other random topics:  
1. In college he and some of his Cornell buddies spent a year developing and implementing a system for beating the casinos at roulette — a system involving passive ultrasonic transmitters, a hacked Palm Pilot and a tiny electric motor; they chickened out after making $40.

2. In 31 years, he’s never held a full-time job.

3. Each of his three children has a one-of-a-kind first name (Mez, Ayza and Novy) and no last name.

4. He designed and built his own trance-inducing pulsing LED glasses, which he used to come up with the title of another game, Inside a Star-Filled Sky, which he describes as an “infinitely recursive shooter.”

5. He and his family live on a total of $14,500 per year, an income cobbled together from donations, game profits and the support of a patron. They graph their expenses from month to month on a piece of paper on the back of his office door.

This last point comes close to the heart of the Rohrer family’s lifestyle. They have no cars, no insurance, no mortgage. Their living room consists of a futon frame (no mattress), two found wooden chairs and a small, antiquated television. They eat as much as they can grow in their small backyard garden, which they cultivate during New Mexico’s long growing season. Rohrer and his wife homeschool their children, following the “unschooling” philosophy, in which students pursue their own interests in a largely unstructured environment.

It’s a lifestyle with many practical consequences. When I first meet Rohrer, he, Mez and Ayza are preparing for a trip to the farmer’s market. To that end, he’s got a tandem recumbent bicycle with attached trailer. He sets me up with their other bike — actually a recumbent three-wheel terra trike — and then his son briefs me on some of the hazards we’ll be facing.

“It’s mainly pit bulls,” Mez tells me, “but some Rottweilers. And one time my dad chased away a Pomeranian.” The dogs, Rohrer explains, snap their chains, hop their fences or slip out their front doors and then, inevitably, come after people on bicycles. “My wife, Lauren, has been attacked twice,” he warns. Now she won’t ride anymore. That’s pretty tough when the only other means of transportation is a half-mile walk to the bus.

In some ways, life with the Rohrers has a gamelike feel to it. “It’s often struck me,” Rohrer says, “that the game of making games is more fun than the games themselves.” Maybe that’s why his games seem to be wrested from real life. While many programmers streamline their lives to make room for the virtual worlds they’re creating, Rohrer complicates his — upping the degree of difficulty until it becomes worth playing.

For example, while the surprise death of a neighbor led Rohrer to create Passage, it was his experiences raising Mez that led to another of his best-known creations, Gravitation.

In that game, you must balance your own interests — searching for white stars on a maze of platforms — with the desires of a small child, who would like to toss a ball back and forth with you. The twist is that playing with the child gives you the power to get to the stars, and searching for stars too much will estrange you from your child. That’s a tension pulled directly from his life. “I definitely come out of my office too tired to engage with my kids some days,” says Rohrer. “I wouldn’t trade the time I spend with them for anything. But then I wouldn’t trade the time I spend in my office either.”

When I say goodbye to the Rohrers on my last day in Las Cruces, Jason and Lauren are cooking dinner in the kitchen. Mez plays Minecraft in Jason’s office. As I prepare to slip out the front door, their toddler Ayza looks up. He’s got an entire world spread out on the living room fioor: Legos, wooden trains, paper maps and Playmobile figures. “So long,” he says, with a surprising nonchalance. And I say back, “So long.” He nods at me once and then returns to the floor, creating the rules of a universe.

Contributing writer MATT THOMPSON finds the degree of difficulty in his life sufficiently high already, thank you very much.

3 Responses to “Playing God”

  1. Peggy Sijswerda Says:
    July 3rd, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    My 15-year-old son thinks Jason lives the dream life. “That’s what I want to do,” Ross says. This excellent story reveals how modern technology and old-fashioned values can live in harmony. I especially admire the Rohrers’ dedication to family and the simple life. Hoping Jason finds monetary rewards one day and that he continues to embrace the simpler pleasures. Best wishes!
    P.S. I’m not a gamer, but the idea that art exists in gaming dimensions makes me think there’s hope for the future.

  2. Phen0m Says:
    July 13th, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Trully awesome to see such an article in mainstream press. Rohrer definitely is a fascinating guy and I’m happy he’s going to release a game on DS. And that’s with deeper games like Braid or Passage that video games will be able to reach cultural acceptance and get a better image regarding non-gamer people.
    Thank you for posting this!
    You pleased a gamer today!

  3. SyFyTy Says:
    November 6th, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Great article. I got his 3 games from Nintendo download, they were powerful. I now have been following this one, Diamond Trust since about 1 year ago. I definately want this one ASAP. Best of Luck Jason and treasure that family, they only stay like that for a fleeting moment.

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