Street Smart Chicago

Professor of Play: How Eugene Jarvis parlayed the fine art of killing Martians into the best job ever

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By Andy Seifert

Eugene Jarvis’ office is trashed.

“Trashed” may actually be too strong of a word, but you don’t usually expect the president of a company to have a bunch of crap just lying around his primary workspace. There are folders all over the floor. An empty carton of milk next to a cactus plant. A dusty cap from the Hoover Dam. A fire-evacuation-procedure form sits on top of some unmarked box of papers. Somewhere, lost underneath a pile of boxes, are thirty or so t-shirts emblazoned with “Eugenius.” And behind the desk, behind the computer and behind the lifetime-achievement award from the 2005 Game Developer’s Choice Awards, sits the grinning 53-year-old who couldn’t care less what his office looks like.

The next time you curse yourself for staying up until 5am to reach the final level of “Rainbow 6” only to be shot in the back of the head, blame Eugene Jarvis, because it’s probably at least two percent his fault anyway. Jarvis, the  video-game pioneer who currently runs Skokie’s Raw Thrills arcade business, helped initiate a geek revolution and a golden age for gaming when he and partner Larry DeMar designed the arcade classic “Defender,” which led to other successes like “Robotron: 2084,” “Blaster” and “Cruis’n USA.” And he’s watched for the past thirty-one years from behind the scenes as gaming has evolved from the simplicity of “Pong” to the complexity of “Final Fantasy XII.”

A caricature of his 1981 self that hangs on the wall shows Jarvis as a rebellious, Wolfman-looking 26-year-old, who just released a massive hit of an arcade game in “Defender,” ready to take over the world with a youthful vigor and a deadly combination of ones and zeros. “The goal of all game designers is to waste everyone’s time playing your game,” he says while considering his younger days. “That’s total world domination… Sadly, Bill Gates has won that game. Everyone’s waiting for their computer to boot up.”

As games have progressed from primitive to photo-realistic graphics, so has the level of analysis and examination, to the point where academia is taking notice. And now, this boyish, goofy video-gamer has accepted a newly created position as the “game designer in residence” at DePaul University, where he plans on “facilitating and inspiring, and maybe demotivating” students who have chosen  video-game design as their scholarly concentration.

“Games have always been about young people and new ideas, just like music and other art forms,” he says. “The new generation’s coming up and they’ve got a new slant on things and—as much as I’d like to think that I’m a genius and the father of all wisdom—probably the new breakthrough statistically will be in the younger generation.”

The results from his students thus far have impressed Jarvis. “These guys aren’t just doing ‘Space Invaders,’” he says, mentioning that he’s working with students on a 1950s noir thriller set in Chicago as well as a weather simulator that will give players the ability to create tornadoes. “Thirty years ago, we put a couple of blips on the screen and that’d be a game. Now, it’s the whole gamut of human experience.”

But to Jarvis, what’s even more intriguing about working at DePaul is the position itself, the fact that academia and intellectual circles have finally started to recognize video games as something more than a meaningless time-waster.

“When I started out in video games, if somebody had talked about having a major field of study in video games, it’d be like today proposing a Bachelor’s of Science in hip-hop or rap. Certainly in five or ten years they’ll have that,” he says. “But I think now, thirty years later, the whole art form of video games is being accepted as a field of study. People are starting to analyze the games and to write very obscure and boring papers.”

There’s a certain tone of satisfaction and pride in Jarvis’ somewhat nasally but equally confident voice, as if he had been right all along to pursue this industry at the exciting cusp of the computer age, when people were just hoping the damn games would function, and the last thing on anyone’s mind was whether or not their product would spurn debates on its artistic merits.

Jarvis was hired by Hewlett-Packard after graduating from the University of California-Berkeley in 1976, and promptly quit a week or two after realizing the six-year project he was assigned to (working on a bureaucratic, government-sponsored computer language) completely sucked. Just then, he received a call from a little jumpstart gaming company called Atari.

“I had talked to them six months earlier, and never heard from them again,” he says. “And then, lo and behold, I think they finally were looking through that messy desk, and they were like ‘Shit! We need a guy tomorrow. Hey, what about this guy?’ And so I ended up going to work for Atari.”

Within a month, all of Jarvis’ bosses had quit, and he inherited the head position of the programming department, charged with trying to save an electronic-pinball project that was doomed from the start. “The machines had some reliability issues,” he says. “They would catch on fire, things like that.” But the challenge left Jarvis hooked on pinball, and also exposed him to the innovations going on in the video-game industry and the beginnings of artificially intelligent, albeit primitive, opponents.

“It kind of defined that whole era of man versus machine,” he says. “‘Pong’ was human versus human. A lot of the early video games, since there really was no computing power, no intelligence during the game, the intelligence would be supplied by the humans. ‘Space Invaders’ and the games after that created the genre of you versus the computer, the single-player game where you go out there and see how far you can get before you die.”

After moving to Chicago, he joined Williams Electronics and realized video-game programming was within his capacity. “Defender,” his 1980 horizontally scrolling, shoot-the-Martians-and-protect-the-humanoids game, put Jarvis on the arcade map and would eventually help to solidify his legendary status. Kids would play “Defender” and see the default high scores on the machine as LED (for designer Larry DeMar) and DRJ (Jarvis’ three-letter moniker), which may have led hundreds of adolescents to think that NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving also programmed arcade games during the off-season.

“The name actually came first,” Jarvis says of “Defender.” “It’s kind of based on justified mayhem. You wanna go and kill and blow things up. It’s what players wanna do. Now you don’t even need justification, you have ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ where you can blow things up for no rhyme or reason. Kind of a digital vandalism. But in those days—in a more moral society—you needed a reason. Why are you killing all of these green Martians? Well, you’re defending yourself.”

“Defender” was the spark that allowed for “Robotron,” “Blaster,” “Cruis’n USA” and others as well as the eventual start up of his own developmental studio in 2001, Raw Thrills, Inc., where today figurines from “Robotron” are hung up in the lobby, colorful, 8-bit reminders of how far gaming has come.

There is a room (other than the bathroom) within the Raw Thrills office building that is, believe it or not, devoid of computers. It’s a remnant from a previous tenant, a very classy boardroom with a walnut table and wood-paneled walls; if this room were in, say, the Enron headquarters, this would be where the CFO could beat his fist down and yell at other obnoxious executives during a highly stressful meeting.

But at Raw Thrills, this room is in disarray, with boxes and papers littered around the table, along with five award plaques from various organizations, just sitting around and collecting dust. When asked why these awards aren’t in some sort of cabinet or display case, Jarvis shrugs, chuckles, and says, “This is it, man.”

The room is apropos of the company he runs: productive but relaxed, unrefined but professional. One of his closest buddies is game designer Xion Cooper, who on this afternoon looks like he just rolled out of bed, threw on a flannel shirt and started designing texture maps. He’s the type with a lot of extreme ideas for the future of video games, like a game that would “deconstruct the whole point of gaming. It would be like you’re in a game, but you’re not really achieving anything.” He insists Jarvis hired him seventeen years ago out of pity, then helped him buy a Geo Metro and sent him down Route 66 for a month to capture images for the “Cruis’n USA” game.

“I had no money really to speak of,” Cooper says. “So he gave me his credit card. So I go everywhere as Eugene Jarvis when I’m signing my credit card. It was really bad in some pathetic, funny way because I’d use it four or five times a day for like two dollars or three dollars just to get a drink or whatever. He kept getting calls from the company who’d say, ‘You know, you’ve got like five charges in all these different places’ and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me.’”

Lending a credit card to an employee before a cross-country road trip displays not only an enormous amount of trust in your staff, but Jarvis’ unregulated desire to create an entertaining arcade game that still maintains a modicum of meaning. Take Raw Thrill’s 2004 release, “Target: Terror,” which at first glance appears to be a typical first-person shooter. The player, armed with machine guns, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, a laser-like weapon called the “shocker” and an “ultra-secret” satellite super-weapon, aims to destroy a contingency of radical terrorists who have taken over the Golden Gate Bridge/Los Alamos/Denver Airport. For the first few minutes of game play, it just feels a little too over-the-top.

Then you notice the details. Once every fifty kills triggers Howard Dean’s infamous scream. If you shoot a terrorist six times in the face, it pops the head off in a gory mess. You can distinctly shoot them in the crotch. It’s all absurd and ridiculous, right? That’s precisely the intention.

“We wanted to be very clear that this is a satire,” says Raw Thrills vice president Andrew Eloff, explaining that the game should be viewed as a “Robocop”-style take on the hysteria of the nation following the terrorist attacks. “We have guys who have nunchucks, we have a chainsaw terrorist… of course sexy girl terrorists, who are wearing leather pants or whatever other dominatrix wear. It’s just goofy. It just adds to the whole absurdity of the situation.” Eloff compares the dry humor present in the game to the Coen Brothers film “Fargo,” probably the first time “Fargo” has ever been successfully referenced in video-game criticism, before stating that the critics have mostly missed the humor and panned it. “The critics have their heads wedged up their ass,” he says.

Still, if “Target: Terror” and other video games have reached the point where they can become a successful medium for satire, then wouldn’t it follow that video gaming has indeed become an art form? Cooper thinks there is “phenomenal art” within the gaming industry, citing the popular “Half-Life” series as a game that not only entertains, but also leaves him in artistic awe.

“The games that really will strike me as great art have a lot of elements that isn’t just about the textures and the quality of the characters,” he says. “It’s the balance between everything: the environment, the sound, the music, the story and the play. And there are very few games that do it well and those that do are really works of art.”

If a struggle for innovative and creative freedom against “the man” is an indicator of a true art form, then consider Jarvis’ perspective on the industry: “It’s the suits versus the geeks.” In his view of the current gaming industry, the “geeks” are pushing for more autonomy against million-dollar corporations unwilling to stray from the doing the same game over and over again.

“As you get all this money out there, there’s a tendency for more conservatism and sequelization,” he says. “So we’re doing ‘Madden 38,’ but now the shoelaces have shadows! And when you step on the turf, the grass is just pressed a little bit, and springs back in just a couple of seconds. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the death of creativity when you make a big deal about really trivial features.”

Even if Jarvis’ life work weren’t worth millions of dollars or worthy of being analyzed by academic scholars, one could reasonably assume he wouldn’t really mind. To bluntly state it, the man is a nerd, and he enjoys too many aspects of video games to get high-minded about his own accomplishments. Sure, he’s a smart, witty, laidback nerd—the coolest kind of nerd, no doubt about it. But he’s been pondering the philosophies and the intricacies of video games for decades now, and that geeky fervor is evident.

With Jarvis, It’s not so much a nostalgic love for classic arcade games themselves; he makes fun of obsessive retro-gaming weirdos quite easily: “There’ll be guys like, [pounding his fists onto the desk] ‘Donkey Kong,’ and after that video games are crap! ‘Donkey Kong’ is the last real video game!’ You’re just like ‘Dude, that game is like 25 years old. Don’t you realize nobody plays that anymore? It’s just you and like twenty other people.’”

Instead, you can sense Jarvis’ self-motivation to figuring out everything he can possibly do to entertain you, and how to make you become “zombie players” of his games. For instance, he wonders how “Tetris,” one of his all-time favorite games, can be so utterly addicting with so little flashiness. “That game, just the brutal simplicity,” he says. “It’s amazing as a game designer you want to have the latest graphics, and you want the Chicago Symphony playing your background music, and you want Harrison Ford and Matt Damon as your starring characters. But if you have an incredibly addictive game, you don’t need any of that crap. You just need blocks.”

And, similarly, there are Jarvis’ theories on why “Pac-Man” has become perhaps the most popular video game among females. “I thought it was about eating,” he says. “You’re eating dots. This is the ultimate low-calorie eating game. You’re eating all these dots, you never put on weight… You also had that pursuit, where these bad little ghosts are pursuing you. And women, they pursue you, they try to get the guy interested, but then you eat the pill and you go eat them.”

This incentive to figuring out the psychological implications of gaming may or may not be the reason for his success, but it’s obvious Jarvis has this whole “zombie player” thing down, at least in terms of a select group of dependent gamers. He says that one player was so driven to reach the “Defender” all-time high score that he played for seventy-two hours straight, accumulating enough lives so that it was possible for him to leave the machine unattended for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. And Jarvis understands that kind of addiction.

“I remember with ‘Defender’ it was amazing to watch some of the great players,” he says. “There would just be hundreds of bombs and missiles and crap just flying across the screen, and somehow in the middle of this chaos they’re just flying around, completely relaxed, like it’s a stroll in the park. They can carry on a conversation as they’re killing hundreds of aliens and avoiding certain death, any millisecond.”

The primitive payoff of video-game competition? “When you get into that groove when you’re on a roll, it’s almost like you feel like you’re immortal.”

“The classic arcade is probably dead,” Jarvis says, sincerely bummed out and bemoaning the demise of Chicago’s last classic game room, Dennis’ Place for Games, which closed in December. Yet business at Raw Thrills is still quite fluid, with opportunities coming in different forms, like video-game-themed gambling (“It’s no longer exciting to just play ‘Pac-Man,’ you gotta have money on the line,” he says) and exporting to other growing international economies.

“The arcade evolved, and now there’s Gamewerks and Dave & Buster’s, and there’s a number of locations like movie theaters, amusement parks, where arcades will exist complementary to another attraction,” Jarvis says. “Wherever people are hanging out, an arcade-like entity often exists.”

And on the gaming-industry front as a whole, Jarvis seems optimistic and curious. He has nothing but high praise for the Nintendo Wii, which he thinks is successful because of its simplified controller, one that doesn’t muddle itself with twenty buttons and three joysticks like other consoles. “The revolutionary element of the Wii is that it’s really taken gaming out of the geek ghetto… if you can use a remote control, which any couch potato can do, you can play any Nintendo Wii game.”

What the next stage in gaming will be, he speculates artificial intelligence will become so advanced that gamers will be able to interact with them as if they are human. Machines will finally be able to pass the Turing test, meaning humans will be unable via computer to discern if they’re communicating with another human or with a machine.

“They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry,” he says, probably in his most serious tone of the conversation. “…And then they kill you.”

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