The Nordic Exceptional Trendshop conference is just around the corner, with a mission to “Rock your Worldview”. One of the many interesting speakers lined up for the event next week in Aarhuus, Denmark, is Jason Anthony – a Senior Editor at publishing giant Time Inc.
Jason will be talking about how he combines gaming mechanisms with new media applications to ‘hack’ traditional problem solving. We got in touch with him to find out about his unusual work, bringing the worlds of religion, gaming and publishing together.
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TNW: Hi Jason, tell us about your role at Time Inc and how religion and games drive your work.
JA: After 9/11, American media outlets aggressively started to “pump up” their religion coverage. This was understandable. The great 20th century cultural move seemed to be towards a more secular West, and religion stories were only getting play in the context of scandals and hot-button social issues, or the occasional sidebar about the religious dimension in a foreign war.
Both the 2000 presidential elections and the 2001 terrorist attacks changed that, dramatically. Suddenly, religion seemed as much a part of our future as it did our past. I was part of that new wave of journalists who became consumed with finding out how, why and what people believe. It was a very personal mission for me as well. I’d been at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and went back to Columbia Journalism expressly to study religion writing to help me piece that experience together.
After doing a good deal of freelancing – and getting the rare chance to face-to-face with some of the wiser folks on the planet – I was brought on by Time Inc. They had been asked to provide editorial guidance on a venerable Christian magazine – The Record – which became a publication I ran for about three years.
Around the same time, I was also asked to take on another magazine in the my division. It was a casino magazine. I think it fell to me because I’d worked in Las Vegas as a younger man, which was itself the result of a long and somewhat shady family history the gaming business. My ancestors have been dealing cards – legally and illegally – for at least four generations.
So here I was, writing and reading about gambling and God. The more time went on, the more connections seemed to appear. The first, I remember, was the winner of the 2007 World Series of Poker: a former missionary, who prayed between hands, tithed his earnings, and won on a well-nigh-miraculous inside straight. What on earth made him think that these two hang together?
I now have a quote over my desk from Dostoyevsky: “Can one even as much as touch a gambling table without becoming immediately infected with mystical thinking?” I soon started looking at the long, rich history of games and religion. The Greeks gave us the Olympic rites, of course. Some of the only buildings left of the great mesoamerican cultures are the sacred ball courts of the Mayans and Aztecs. Easter Island had a games-based religion for about 150 years. And even in Christianity, in the middle ages, there were doctrines that called for an appeal to God’s judgment through games.
I branched out past my writing and editorial work to design games, which I began to “hack” from the more gamelike branches of religious traditions. I’ve done these for a number of audiences, sacred and profane. Last spring I was asked to design a full games-based chapel service for one of our more venerable seminaries – Union Theological, here in New York. It centered around Psalm 23, and the rules were loosely based on blackjack.
TNW: What is The Ten Year Game?
JA: The Ten Year Game is the most ambitious project so far. The goal is to create a “community of meaning” that is profoundly informed by a handful of classical definitions of what a religion is and does. It also operates by game rules. I hesitate to say that this is a “new religion that can be played as a game,” but that is a phrase, for better or worse, that often gets applied to it.
There are a couple of foundational ideas, which may be a bit dry to get into here, but basic play is pretty simple. Players divide into ten teams. Each team takes up the flag of one of the world’s great wisdom traditions. They play against each other, in what I call “an amiable holy war.” Each session lasts a year, and at the end of the year, players switch teams. The idea is that, at the end of ten years, you’ve kind of moved through all of history’s great tactics and ideas for living a good, full life.
Two quick footnotes to that. First, the individual games that get played within the Ten Year Game are created by hacking what I call our cultural “praxes.” These are the symbolic actions that play huge psychological roles. Of course there are religious rituals that qualify, like pilgrimage and charity and sacrifice, but there are also a host of more modern symbolic actions, like planking or pranks or grafitti.
The second footnote here is how we actually derived the ten teams. The premise of the game is that there is a hidden roadmap to the soul, and it’s the Dewey Decimal System (a catalogue system for libraries). Melvil Dewey relegated all of human experience into ten categories – memory, storytelling, introspection, analysis, etc – and it’s been a pretty robust way for libraries to organize books. Our teams each take one of those categories, pair it with a few wisdom/religious traditions that fit, and make that into a playful group meditation for the year.
TNW: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
JA: To be a journalist nowadays – to still make a living in this turbulent industry – is incredibly rewarding. We’re paid to be curious, and paid to be opinionated. Fourier argued that one of the great human passions that must be allowed for was papillonage – the ability to flit from thing to thing as it caught our fancy, like a butterfly might. Journalists – lucky journalists, anyway – still get to do that. And despite the state of the industry, Time Inc has retained the most talented folks on the planet – not just writers and photographers but media developers and designers and big thinkers. I’m lucky, since I get to develop small, innovative magazines and media applications within this huge talent pool.
And game design – well, it’s great for exactly opposite reasons. Where journalism has had to become spare and lean, game design is enjoying the flowering of massive public interest. It attracts a huge pool of talent, and a willingness to try anything.
TNW: Gamification has been noticeable emerging trend in the publishing industry of late – where do you think these trends will have taken us in five years from now?
JA: We’re obviously seeing gamification everywhere – not just in publishing, but in social media and advertising and broadcast media etc. etc. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the next gen of hybrid cars – and how they lowered gas consumption through making driving with optimal gas efficiency into a cute game on the console panel.
Publishing is obviously eating this up, even the most prestigious outlets. I remember talking to David Remnick of the New Yorker up at Columbia, and he mentioned what a tough time they had editorially with their humor pages. Their solve was to make the back page into a user-run caption contest. That seems to have worked for them for years. Arianna Huffington arguably extends that idea to her whole site – outsourcing her journalism to her readers as a quasi contest. Considering how little she pays, getting a piece in the Huffington Post may as well be a blue ribbon or a laurel wreath, a prize rather than a job. If content is the new currency, then the fame that comes with content is the new prestige. What media outlet wouldn’t want to jump on that bandwagon?
Still, someone needs to judge those games. In an age of user-generated content, you’ll see editors becoming more like referees, deciding what’s best and funneling this to loyal readers.
All of that said – I’m not the biggest gamification prophet you’ll meet. I think it works for some areas, and doesn’t work for others. And, as many game designers will come clean and tell you, the upshot of gamification isn’t all roses. There’s a short-attention-span mindset it promotes. More specifically to my work, I worry about the growing obsession with the “win.” I recently gave a talk about how “winning” has taken on toxic overtones. With my work – games that come from religious contexts – those “win” conditions are more interesting and ambivalent. If you “win” a Zen koan, your ego explodes. If you “won” a game of sacred ulamitzli, your head was chopped off. And can you really say that anyone “won” in the contest over Job’s soul? These games have very different lessons, important lessons, which at their apex point us back from the game towards the deeply ambivalent nature of mortality.
TNW: Of the other speakers at NEXT 2011, who are you particularly looking forward to?
JA: What a question! I don’t think there’s a bad apple in the lot. I’ve heard Jake (Dunagan) speak before, and the frontiers of neuroscience he explores are absolutely riveting to me. Alfons Cornella is also something of a personal hero, with his focus on the importance of social reinvention as a next step. That said, I expect to do a lot of listening.
TNW: Will this be your first time in Denmark? What are you looking forward to most about your visit?
JA: I used to live in Århus, so I’m tremendously excited to visit again. I was an exchange student there when I was 16, which was, let’s say, a long while back. I was approached by Innovationlab after giving the keynote at the Institute for the Future’s Ten Year Forecast, and when they mentioned Århus, I jumped at the chance.
As a kid, Denmark just blew my teenaged mind. I came from a fairly conservative U.S. city, and this idea that you could build a society that took such rigorous good care of its citizens was a revelation. I held the U.S. to a much higher standard after living here. This docile place radicalized me. I also developed a number of lifelong friendships in Denmark, chief among them with the family that hosted me, the Bergmanns. They’re just extraordinary people. We still speak often, and in fact they just came to visit me in NYC.
First thing off the plane, I’ll hightail it to the nearest to buy that sharp, salty black licorice you can’t find anywhere else. And I’ll enjoy speaking Danish, which is otherwise such a futile language to know. Anyone who speaks Danish also speaks English, and usually better than you do. Hopefully I’ll find a few people to indulge me while I’m there.