For most of his working life, Mike Uy has been in the fantasy fulfilment business.
Read his full bio at the Conversations page.
Steve – What was the first ballgame you went to and what do you remember about it? Also what was the first election you voted in and – briefly – what do you think have been the most significant changes in both baseball and politics since then?
Mike – The first ballgame I went to was to see the team that is now the Guardians at the Cleveland Municipal stadium in 1979. I was five years old and we hadn’t moved to Maryland, yet. I don’t remember much except it was huge and empty and I ate a hot dog and drank a soda, which was exciting because my mom was a health nut even back in the 70s before it was cool and we never had junk food or sugar of any kind in the house.
After we moved, I went to an O’s game here or there with friends and their families, but not regularly until my parents split up and then it became a thing I did with my dad as the only one of five kids who was into sports.
The first election I voted in was 1992, months after I turned eighteen. I laugh now because I voted for the guy who won in spite of knowing he was a silver-tongued narcissist who was out for himself and probably wouldn’t do much but at least wouldn’t get in the way. But what I would give now for just a philandering fast-talker who gets caught lying about a blow job.
Since then it’s been just like the markets – and baseball in terms of performances and records – in the sense that volatility is higher, both short and long term. Impossible things happen like the Red Sox winning a World Series at all (boo!), let alone coming back from 0-3 to humiliate the Yankees (ok, that part was fun). Or the Cubs winning a Series. Or a Black man being President.
On the other hand, terrible things that used to seem impossible also happen like dystopian fascism; first as the double-speak practice run before Obama and then as the naked, more viral version after that leads to white supremacy, antisemitism and The Handmaid’s Tale. Not to mention the Yankees and Red Sox winning nine titles between them, juicers destroying all the records, the Astros cheating, and now maybe a Yankee broke the record for real.
Maybe after the last thirty years I’m feeling a bit more cynical – as anyone would from ages eighteen to forty-eight – but in particular given the shit show above (which hasn’t even included supporting Tottenham in that time, nor insane nonsense like Leicester City winning the Premier League nor Cleveland winning a title in any sport let alone the NBA, let alone the whole deal with Chelsea or Manchester City et al) I feel like it’s forgivable.
Steve – You grew up an Orioles fan but this was your first visit to Camden Yards for a while – you said you were glad to see “they hadn’t ruined it” when we were talking about the alteration to the outfield wall. How important is continuity, not just in baseball, but in a world where change is inevitable? Does it get more important to understand and appreciate timelines as we get older?
Mike – I think it varies by context. Some things we value because of their continuity and traditions as a link to the past, whether those are in sport or culture or neighborhoods. Even with those things of course we need to make progress where it’s helpful and we can get into debates about stuff like using technology for strike zones (or VAR in football or line calls in tennis), but in some cases like Jackie Robinson or Jason Collins, among many others, the progress is not really a debate (unless you’re among the aforementioned fascists).
Other things exist almost entirely for the sake of progress, like the internet or political movements, and yet they still end up often with more continuity and stagnation than we would like in the form of monolithic organizations more interested in capital and control to keep taking their parasitic cuts. That’s as true of Facebook or Google as it is of the NCAA or FIFA.
Baseball is a special case, at least for America. It’s not the most exciting sport. It’s not the most athletic. It’s got a million weird rules. There’s a ridiculous amount of downtime. It’s not made for TV at all in a world that increasingly doesn’t want to leave their couch. But it feels older and more sacred. That’s the thing it has to offer the others don’t. That’s its edge. (That and sitting outside during some nice weather months and having long talks with friends or family over beers because games are so chill… if you’re fortunate enough to go to games.)
That applies doubly in the case of Camden Yards, which brought that vintage style back in fashion more broadly when it was built (we’d been stuck at Memorial Stadium and that was both as bad as all baseball stadiums shared with football always are and also just not nice in any way). What made – and still makes – the place great is that it considered that vibe and look and feel in service of the memories fans bring from all the times they’ve been there.
And there’s also a fantasy fulfilment aspect to it referencing even older, classic stadiums that we never went to because they’re from our parents and grandparents’ times. Especially as much as the team has struggled since ‘83 (aside from blips in the late 90s and mid-teens that were, at best, Spursy), the one thing we’ve had is the prettiest, classiest ballpark – and incorporated properly in the city as they should be. I’m glad it still is.
(* Just to clarify, sometimes things that look deeply Spursy can turn around pretty quickly. Almost as quickly as things that seemed hugely joyous can, in turn, become Spursy …)
Steve – As a video game designer, you’re mostly interacting with an audience of people younger than yourself, and technology is one of the fields in society where change is most acutely felt. Do you think our institutions – the financial and legal systems, for example – are capable of adapting quickly enough to technological developments, and what are the consequences if that gap widens?
Mike – I don’t think the market or the government have ever been able to keep up and that’s where the oligarchs have always amassed their wealth and power. They will always keep pushing in areas that haven’t been understood or regulated enough yet, that are too complicated for the general public to realise are the same ponzi schemes and monopolies and vigs repackaged in layers of abstraction and convenience. Regulation, coming first from market and then government, is always reactive in response to public sentiment which itself is always years late to the abuse taking place. By the time the cab drivers are talking about it, sell. And even then the regulation is a few years away. The news isn’t even there yet by then. But the big profits have already been taken off the table.
I don’t think culture has ever really been able to keep up, either. Every major societal shift follows big technological changes in ways no one could predict or would have tolerated if they’d known in advance. From the printing press to telegraph to radio to TV to internet or from trains to cars to planes, at first we think it’s freedom, then it’s profit, but then the machine catches up and co-opts it and figures out how to exploit it and it becomes both the very thing upon which we are dependent and which ends up being used to oppress us.
As a video game maker (and player for forty years now), I’m extremely cognizant of being in both the fantasy fulfilment and drug dealing businesses and that my use of technology to provide people with escapism is, at best, stress relief, but at worst a waste of time and/or drain on peoples’ resources. As a designer, I don’t really want to pander to youth as I believe there are players of all ages. Nor do I want to pander to teenage and college-age boys (or the ones inside older men) that just want to destroy stuff and kill people over and over either.
That said, I do feel responsibility, as anyone in entertainment or education should, to be aware of the very different childhood and early adulthood that kids have now with the technology available. To the extent I can, I want to provide alternatives to the sort of addictive, negative feedback loops that everything from social media to video games (particularly mobile ones) to video and live streaming services tend to fall into. Of course that means fighting against the inertia of proven large profits and I have to convince both investors and my bosses to take those risks.
Steve – Somewhat related to that, there are more members of Congress over the age of 70 now than ever, while just 4% of Congress is under 40 – in contrast to about half the country. Do you think politicians adequately understand technology and the world their constituents now take for granted enough to legislate for it? (and I know their staffers are more in line with the national age distribution, but doesn’t it come down to how seriously lawmakers think about change?)
Mike – I almost feel like the right response here is a laughing emoji…
Dubya didn’t use email. Trump could barely use Twitter (and the fact he kept being allowed to was prima facie evidence there was no one anywhere near him who could keep him in check). Most in Congress and government generally are probably best off avoiding it at this point considering how likely they are to embarrass themselves or end up hacked from clicking on the wrong things.
No. This is hopeless. The cycle goes like this: academics and entrepreneurs think of shit, the money finds out and figures out how to exploit it without paying the former what they’re worth, the public finds out too late and gets taken to the cleaners thinking they’re in on it early, then the news pays attention and makes a big deal of it, and then only if it sticks and everyone doesn’t forget about it in five minutes, the government becomes aware of it. Then, IF the offending parties don’t have big enough lobbies, the government will consider mildly regulating it or accommodating it, but then leave enough wiggle room for the big players to still monopolize it. (Like they did with the ACA after much kicking and screaming even though that wasn’t really tech, but it’s the same deal.)
Steve – I’m guessing you’re planning to vote in NYC at the next election having moved back from California recently. How does the quality of local politicians compare? What’s the biggest problem New York needs to address right now? Nationally, do you think it’s inevitable with our party system the way it is that not much can change?
Mike – On one hand, I’m spoiled moving here from SF in terms of safety of candidates at least not being complete fascists. On the other hand, in both places it’s still mostly rich corporate assholes with nice haircuts and carpetbagging progressives trying to move to districts where they think they have a shot because there’s no incumbent. And we still end up with “centrists” who claim to be Democrats but are really 1972 Republicans.
Ultimately, it’s still just campaign finance in a two party system with enough gatekeepers that it’s easy to buy it if you’re rich enough and nigh impossible to do anything if you’re not.
In terms of New York, short of leaving the Union before 2024, I’m pretty much resigned to just being the other half (along with the Pacific Northwest) of Vichy France in a few years and just hoping we can someday have a mayor who doesn’t believe we need an army of Hessians from Jersey and LI and Staten Island who hate us to patrol the streets for us to be safe. That said, at least this guy isn’t fighting with art museums about poop on paintings. But we’ll be fine (for a while anyway… said the guy in 1934 Berlin).
Steve – In terms of mobility, doing what you do you gives you – and many other people – tremendous flexibility in matching work with lifestyle; something that has been exacerbated by Covid, as we’ve all embraced a concept of working from home where it doesn’t really matter where that “home” is physically located. What do you think the implications of that are for how society organizes itself, and in turn how we think about our relationship to politics and how we’re governed?
Mike – Sadly, I think most people had already done this in the form of commuting from the suburbs to an office park and back, which more or less divorced work from home as part of the so-called American dream. Now that for many the commuting part doesn’t matter, aside from the people with family ties that can’t move no matter what, where to live becomes more clearly a choice that is some function of the level of interaction they want with others versus the amount of space and stuff they want to themselves. I expect with respect to politics we’ll unfortunately see greater concentrations of like-minded folks moving to be in the same areas, along with a bigger divergence culturally and politically between urban and ex-urban folks and, as always, as a function of distance from the equator.
Steve – Talk a little about the challenges of game design today? You can share as little or as much as you want about specific games you’re working on – it’s more to get a sense of the pressure in the industry to keep one step ahead. We talked a little about the idea of the in-game economy. I remember way too many years ago writing about Second Life when it started up – where are we now, along with things like crypto and NFTs, in our understanding of “virtual value”?
Mike – Ultimately, it comes down to where and how you want to spend your time and how much you’re willing to pay to enhance that experience. Think about it like this: we’ll spend ten bucks on a beer without thinking about it, fifteen if we’re at a ballgame or a concert. We’ll spend fifteen to go to a movie and another ten on concessions. Those last four or five hours in the case of a game, two or so for a concert or movie. And we’re used to paying streaming services ten to fifteen bucks a month for a subscription for probably five to ten hours of watching time a month.
On a dollars-per-hour basis, video games used to be a great deal even when you paid sixty bucks to play them if you played them for a hundred hours as many do. But they have a much more a la carte system now than even that, let alone the subscription streaming model that Apple tried and didn’t really catch on (even though I did work on one of the release games for that). Now, players have come to expect free-to-play as an option unless it’s a big budget game that’s like the equivalent of a big studio movie release.
What that means is, like social media which is itself ultimately just an online massively multiplayer video game (where you get followers, views, likes as a score), the people investing in these things need to find ways to monetize the players that are optional but desirable. Like ads in social media which need some amount of us to click through and buy stuff to make the whole system work. In the case of games and virtual value and NFTs and all of that, it translates to players wanting to play the game with the same sort of inelastic demand via network effects that social media has because it’s some combination of that fun and/or that full of their friends that they then feel ok opting into the additional purchases every so often to keep it going.
But they will only do so to the extent it enhances their actual experience and to the extent you provide them with that kind of sticky experience that will keep them and their friends coming back. The same is true for other kinds of NFTs. There has to be some value attached that translates to a better time or some kind of value, whether that’s playing a particular game in a more fun way or going backstage at a particular concert or being able to buy a presale of a new shoe drop early or whatever.
Beyond that, if you’re just in it for the scarcity value of the hedge against the system collapsing because you don’t trust the establishment, I’m not sure that’ll work much better than gold. Neither are going to do you much good when we’re fighting over water and protein and just hoping not to get violently assaulted. It’s not like we’re going to keep power and the internet going if all the wealth of all the people including the most powerful among them goes up in flames and rule of law breaks down with it.
Steve – And a similar question about popular culture and information – obviously I’m interested in what replaces newspapers as an information source, but is there scope within gaming worlds of finding a way for the “citizens” who make up that virtual community to be collectively aware of whatever they define as “news”? Or is it somewhere they go to get away from it?
Mike – Dedicated players for most individual games will aggregate in one of the major online community sites outside the game depending on the demographics. Some rely on that more than others. Some build communities around streamers. Some by sharing videos. Some by maintaining wikis or similar repositories of information.
Much like I expect will happen with people all moving to where they want to live rather than where they want to work, people will more and more spend their time online in tighter demographics, watching the same shows and playing the same games as their friends and family. At a certain point that and social media and whatever we replace the current social media with just replace(d) news.
I’ve often said – and I know I’m biased because everyone says the world was the best when they were in their twenties – that the nineties were the best because we had the internet but we didn’t take it with us yet. All the information, but you had to go and sit down and have that be what you were doing or not. Everything else was untethered. Even with phones we didn’t really text as a cultural norm until the aughts let alone have internet or email, except those of us on blackberries and the like but even so that was near the end. Once smartphones happened, there was no going back to other media.
Even away from our desks, we’re reachable and it’s right there in our pockets. Soon it will be on our glasses and eventually our eyeballs and maybe for many (but I will opt out at this point) in our brains. Getting away is already the opt-in at this point because there is no “away” really except turning it off or not carrying it with you. As such there is no “news” because we’re all going to just get the information we care about and none of the rest of it. And we’re going to get it immediately from the other people who care about it but everything else we’ll either not get or we’ll get too late for it to matter because we didn’t really care.
Steve – Finally, back to baseball, slightly. A new MLB report shows increasing engagement with young fans (well, of course it would) but with the rise of ESports, especially during Covid, what’s the challenge for all professional in-person sports to better sell their experiences to the next generation of fans? Can the two worlds co-exist?
Mike – I don’t really think sports and games in particular are at odds. If anything they’ve got a decent relationship washing each others’ backs. It would be great for the sport if a video game version of one of the sports were big as an e-sport, but it so far hasn’t really been the case because watching people play video game sports isn’t really as good as either watching them play real sports or watching them play other video games where the characters do things real humans can’t in environments that don’t exist.
It’s all entertainment, really. There’s a question of whether in-person entertainment or live entertainment (otherwise broadcast) continue to make sense if the kids coming up would rather play and watch video games or just watch random people’s videos or streams online than content that’s been produced. But within that realm sports and concerts and bars and dance clubs and casinos and beaches and restaurants all are in the same boat.
If the question is whether baseball in particular can survive the shift, I think the more global and digital things get the harder it will be to compete with football (sawker) and basketball not just because of how many play them or watch them but because they have so few players on each squad, so few good teams at a time, the stars play both ways for most if not all of each game, and they don’t wear helmets or hats or anything but shirts and shorts and shoes whether in real life or a video game. They’re built for stars and that translates with social media and video game culture alike.
All of it is fantasy fulfillment. We use athletes and video game characters and politicians and actors and singers as proxies for the things we feel and want and wish we could do. Once you give everyone the choice of fantasy they want fulfilled for the price of a computer or tablet or phone and they can switch with a tap or a click, as we did with TV remotes or radio dials or picking up a different book or magazine in times past, we resolve to stars and known quantities after all.
And much as we like to hire people who we think are the younger versions of ourselves, we like stars who we think are what we would have been like as that thing whether that’s a point guard or a guitar player or a congressperson or movie star or author or famous chef or just a friendly podcast or talk show host that we think acts the way around other famous people that we wish we did.
Anyway, football and basketball have those. And almost everyone plays them so we know who we wish we were. It’s an uphill battle for the other sports to achieve that same fantasy fulfillment in much the same way not everyone wants to be Django Reinhardt or John Coltrane (unless they studied that kind of music) even if some would argue maybe they should.
So if we want people to want to be baseball players in their fantasy, whether it’s their baseball watching or video game baseball playing fantasy, we need them to relate to the stars and that means we need them playing it in real life growing up and thinking they could have been contenders. And more baseball players growing up means more players for the video games and more watching MLB and getting hooked.
Maybe an easier question is can we get the girls to play (counting softball here)? Because that’d be a bigger win than trying to beat out football (sawker) or basketball or even American throwball. Leaving a whole lot of eyeballs and dollars on the table otherwise with half the potential audience being women who play games and watch TV, too. But as crazy as it is that market is still in play from a sports perspective though football (sawker) and basketball have a big head start there as well.
Anyway, good luck, baseball. I both love its keeping of tradition and worry about whether it’s flexible enough in spite of that to survive.
You might also enjoy these other Conversations:
Ian Nicholas Quillen: Over/Under:
“I see a lot of similarities between baseball and American democracy because since I was a child the players in both have been using high-level data to exploit weaknesses in the structure of both. There is a lot of gaming the system, which results in actual practices that are a lot different than those who created the rules intended; whether we’re talking about extreme gerrymandering or five-man infields.”
Danny Knobler: Relief:
“I think MLB has done about as well as it can with trying to build a world base for the game, and I’m glad to see another London Series this summer. Having a sports bar in Thailand, I see similar issues for many sports that have looked to branch out internationally. Nearly every sport or league has tried to do it, with varying degrees of success. I don’t see baseball becoming a major sport in the UK or anywhere in Europe. Australians love all sports and are probably more likely to embrace it, but obviously they don’t have the market size to be as attractive a target.”
Alina Utrata: Musk and Managing The Message:
“Much has changed since [I first voted in 2014], but the most important question I think has not been about how the boring political establishment controls our institutions, but whether white supremacist fascism has infiltrated our political processes.”