How I Play: Chris Hardwick on 'Dungeons & Dragons' and the Dangers of VR

How I Play: Chris Hardwick on 'Dungeons & Dragons' and the Dangers of VR

Chris Hardwick has had to adapt his play habits, but his passion for games has never waned. Getty/Sean Mathis

The nerd impresario speaks to his lifelong relationship with games, his misgivings about VR, and the time in his life he had to swear off his consoles

The nerd impresario speaks to his lifelong relationship with games, his misgivings about VR, and the time in his life he had to swear off his consoles

Chris Hardwick is a busy man. Nerdist Industries, the company he founded in 2008 on the back of blog, is now a sprawling fiefdom within Legendary Entertainment's growing empire. When The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul are on the air, you can catch him on Talking Dead and Talking Saul, the high-profile aftershows that he hosts, a format that he helped pioneer on AMC. And evidently not one to forget his roots as a gameshow host on MTV's Singled Out and Shipmates, Hardwick also heads up @Midnight, a meme-powered improv gameshow on Comedy Central. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this avatar of geekdom might be too busy to indulge in the passions that drive his career.

At an earlier point in his life, this was in fact the case. There was a moment in his post-Singled Out career that Hardwick had to swear off games (in addition to booze; he's been sober since 2003) in an effort to get his working life in order. Hardwick talked to us about how his game-wired brain saw him through this tough time, and mused on topics ranging from the potentially catastrophic draw of VR, to the virtues of gaming face-to-face with actual humans.

So, we've heard you're into games.
Yeah, I've played a few. I'm old enough to have experienced the initial video game revolution. My dad was a professional bowler, and when he opened a bowling center, he put in this really huge arcade. So I grew up with the video game revolution and also the home game revolution. I had an Atari 2600 and an Intellivision and all the way up through NES, Super NES, PlayStation, Xbox. Now, PS4, and Xbox One. I put an arcade in my house, too. I have two Multicade cabinets, two pinball games... all-in-all, probably 1,500 games between all of them. Shit's real.

You have a lot going on, with @Midnight, Nerdist, and everything else. How do you make the time time to play?
I don't get as much time to play. The games that I like are involved, quest-driven RPGs. I played Skyrim for like a year and half, literally to the point where I was just making produce errand runs for each of the fucking houses that I had in each town. That's harder now because you can't really play those games casually.

What I've been playing the most of lately is Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. It's a Final Fantasy game that was made specifically for mobile. To get ready for Final Fantasy XV, I guess. It's just a really basic turn-based RPG. Whereas the other Final Fantasy games have been retro-fitted to mobile, this is actually made for mobile and it's great. I love it. I've spent a lot of money playing the game, which I know makes people upset, but I guess I sort of feel like, "you know, I would spend 20 bucks to go see a movie. Why wouldn't I spend 20 bucks to play a game all day?"

I also bought the Skyrim remaster, but I haven't played it yet.

Because I have an alcoholic's brain, I'm kind of all or nothing, so I had to choose nothing for a while so I could get my career back on track. 

That way lies madness for you, by the sounds of it.
Yeah, because it just takes up so much time. I love it, but I would honestly do nothing else but that if I weren't careful. I feel like what's happening is that a lot of my adult responsibilities are getting in the way. I quit drinking in 2003 and I quit gaming at that time for about five or six years. I was not leaving the house and I was blowing off work stuff to play games. I had to straighten my life out, so I had to take a break from gaming to get my life back on track.

What were the games form that era that were gripping you so intensely?
It was everything. There was Grand Theft Auto, Twisted Metal, Wild Arms, older Final Fantasy games, really anything that I could get ahold of that would eat up gobs and gobs of time. I really didn't want to do anything else. I would be out at other places and thinking about quests that I had to complete back home. Because I have an alcoholic's brain, I'm kind of all or nothing, so I had to choose nothing for a while so I could get my career back on track. I'm glad I did, but I'm glad to be back now.

You've said in the past that you were able to harness that alcoholic brain, that hyper-focus, to get your life back on track. It sounds like you were approaching that transition as if it were a challenge in a game.
A hundred percent. I basically gamified productivity, if that makes any sense. I created an energy bar and quest lines that I filled in by hand on graph paper, but they were for real-world activities because my brain really liked that reward system. I would have to fill up the experience meter and then go to the next level. My brain was so conditioned to work that way. You do learn to problem-solve, you learn how to become more efficient, and you learn how to work something expertly.

I think a lot of times, your brain doesn't really know the difference. It happens on such a basic level that your brain doesn't know, like, "this isn't feeding you." I think it's important to remember that sometimes you have to go accomplish real-world things. Unless you're a professional esports gamer. That kind of solves that problem.

Speaking of brains not knowing the difference, what about VR? How screwed are we?
Ever since the movie Lawnmower Man, we've been promised that there'd be this virtual wonder-scape that we could exist in. I do think there are dangers to it because the world is a dirty place and VR can be engineered to be everything we want it to be. Why would you ever leave that if you're just constantly being stimulated in the most pleasurable way possible?

There's a great GIF that I saw on Reddit ages ago. It was basically a mom walking in on her son, but instead of him just masturbating, he was hooked up to this full VR suit and his body is like... this machine. He's like, "mom, close the door!" I feel like we're already predisposed to want to detach from reality. I hope the good outweighs the bad. I mean, I believe that it does, but just knowing the nature of humans, I think it's going to be a problem. I think people will really have to go to meetings for VR addiction. If it's full-sensory immersive, then I think we're kind of fucked as a species.

I saw this polyhedral vase at a store and I thought, 'what else could you put in there other than D&D dice?'

Didn't mean to bum you out!
No, not at all. Listen, I'm welcoming the change. I'm excited about it. I have a couple of VR units. We're really only just tickling the surface of it, too. The great thing about technology now versus when I was growing up is that the world is sort of open source. People are going to figure out ways to use it that even the creators had never dreamed of. It's going to be interesting.

It's going to wind up being like the internet in the end, isn't it? Already, there are problems with women being harassed in VR. Developers have had to figure out ways to literally kick somebody out of your world.
It's sort of the de-humanizing of the human race in a way, because our brains are wired to interact with people face to face. This whole virtual way of communication that we've developed in the last 25 years is a little unhealthy. There's a difference between having to take responsibility for what you say to another person and being in front of them and seeing all of the visual cues that you learn when you communicate with people. I think people are just going to lose that skillset and lose a bit of empathy, because it's all virtual and they're like, "it's not real." You don't have to be yourself.

Word on the street is that you have nine pounds of D&D dice in your dressing room. Are you a D&D guy?
I am, yeah. I still play. I saw this polyhedral vase at a store and I thought, "what else could you put in there other than D&D dice?" There's this company where you can buy dice by the pound, and it took nine pounds to fill that thing. I think D&D is a really important part of having a holistic gaming culture because it demands that use your imagination. So much of where the technology in games is going is it's bringing the game to your brain. It's not really making your brain go to the game, so you don't necessarily have to be as creative.

The great thing about D&D is that it's the perfect intersection of fantasy and probability. It's just math and fantasy. It's a great way to game because, number one, you're fully engaged in other human beings. You're all staring at each other the entire time. If your DM is really good, he will paint a very visual picture with words. You have to literally work together and use your imagination. He's not a computer with a limited set of programs. It can go anywhere, ultimately.

Anyone too immersed in digital [should] maybe take a step outside and try some real-world RPG gaming with a bunch of other people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.