On Writing and Cheating (At Video Games): An Interview with Liel Liebovitz, Visiting Assistant Professor

Liel Leibovitz, a visiting assistant professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Culture and Communications, is a communications scholar and journalist who researches video game and interactive media. He is the author of four books of non-fiction—most recently The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon and Schuster, 2010), co-written with Todd Gitlin.

Talk a little about your new book, The Chosen Peoples. How did your background influence the book you wrote?

In so many ways, Todd and I are not the people anyone would ever expect might take any interest in the theology of divine election. Both Todd—a former president of Students for a Democratic Society—and myself, an Israeli-born peace activist, are secular, progressive liberals, and we were troubled by how prevalent the idea of “chosenness” was in the theology, history, and politics of both America and Israel. We set out to write a book that would decry this heady and dangerous idea. We thought it was preposterous to believe that at some point in history and for some unknown reason God chose a specific people to be his most favorite nation. Then, however, we started exploring the theological foundations of both nations, and we learned that the idea of “chosenness” was far more complex than we’d realized. We understood that, far from a divine mandate, “chosenness” could be seen as a terrible burden, a never-ending uncertainty that had led both Israelis and Americans to some singular accomplishments. We were deeply comforted by Abraham Lincoln, who referred to Americans as God’s “almost chosen people,” thereby urging us to live up to and be found worthy of our self-professed divine designation. Understood this way, we believe, the idea of “chosenness” can become a tremendous engine of compassion, justice, and good.

How much research did you do for Lili Marlene and Fortunate Sons? What interested you about these stories?

Unlike The Chosen Peoples , both Lili Marlene and Fortunate Sons required months of archival research and interviews in faraway lands, which is to say the kind of stuff which attracts one to book-writing in the first place. For Lili Marlene—a book about the most popular song of World War II—my co-author, Matthew Miller, and I traveled to Germany, Holland, and England and interviewed elderly veterans. One of them served as a driver to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel; the famed commander, the man told us, loved the song deeply, and played it even after it was banned by Berlin for being too sentimental and unwarlike. Talking to these old soldiers helped us understand what made the song so dear to fighting men on both sides of the battlefield, and what awesome power art has to overcome even the fiercest of ideological divides.

We then went on to write Fortunate Sons, which will be published by Norton next February and which tells the story of 120 Chinese boys sent to America in 1872 to learn the ways of the west. These boys spent 11 years in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, and returned home to modernize their ailing empire and shepherd its rebirth as a republic. Visiting the villages of southern China, we met some of these boys’ descendants, and realized that the story we were writing, that of China’s attempts at modernizing, was as relevant today as it was back in the 19th Century.

Your field of interest is gaming. How does this fit into the scope of what you write about?

Video game research has been a passion of mine since I was very young. I remember playing with my first Atari: I was seven or eight years old, and I was awestruck by the idea that it was suddenly possible to manipulate the images on the television screen. I began asking myself how it was possible that these two experiences that took place in the same physical space in the house and utilized the same screen nonetheless felt so radically different. It is, essentially, the same fundamental question I’m thinking about today, although I’d like to think that my methodology has become a touch more rigorous.

You studied the culture of cheating. What can you tell us about why people cheat in video games?

Cheating in video games is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s extremely prevalent—hefty guidebooks are published each year to help players cheat their way through the more popular titles on the market. At first, I was dumbfounded, and had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to play a game once a cheat code had removed virtually all obstacles and challenges.

Then, however, I understood that cheating was actually a rather sophisticated mechanism of game design: as each game is likely to attract a wide variety of players, each with different gaming experience and diverging expectations, game designers need to find some way to allow beginners and experts alike to find their way through the game. Cheating is a terrific solution. It’s a way for the novice player to progress through parts he or she might’ve otherwise found impassable, and it allows the veteran player to leisurely explore the world of the game without worrying about the natural progression of play.

What’s even more astonishing is that cheating makes players feel guilty. In the course of my research, I interviewed gamers who admitted to cheating, and virtually all of them said that even though the cheat code was an option installed by the game’s programmer—and as such could not be considered subversive in any way—they still felt as if they had done something wrong by opting to cheat.

Cheating, then, is a way for game designers to create an emotional connection to the game. Gamers cheat, they feel bad; the result is that they are now emotionally invested in the play experience. It’s a marvelous mechanism.

Do you see gaming coming into its own as an area of scholarship?

I feel very fortunate to be a member of the first generation of game scholars working to elevate game research into a fully fleshed out academic discipline. This, of course, is not to say that there hadn’t been any innovative and insightful works written about gaming since it began to attract academic attention three decades ago, but I think that the recent decade has brought about a real about-face, with scholars looking not so much at disparate threads but at the bigger picture of what games are and why people play them. And I’m thrilled and honored to work here at NYU with so many of the most innovative researchers in the field, including Jan Plass and Sam Howard-Spink (Steinhardt), Jesper Juul and Frank Lantz (Tisch).