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Comedy and Video Games Have a Ton in Common, Says DICE Host Pete Holmes (Q&A)

A Jerry Seinfeld routine and a sunset in Grand Theft Auto V are more alike than you might think.

Every year for the past 17 years, the video game industry has convened to celebrate its latest work at the DICE Awards. The 18th show is this Thursday. It’s a glitzy and self-congratulatory affair, loosely akin to the Oscars of games — with one big difference.

Unlike the Oscars or Golden Globes, which are typically hosted by entertainers from within their industry, for the past few years the DICE Awards have been hosted by a celebrity unconnected to game production. This year’s host, Pete Holmes, is a stand-up comic with a great podcast.

In an interview with Re/code, Holmes talked about his own style of playing video games and why he likes to get into the heads of the people who make games. To be frank, I didn’t know going into this interview if he’d have anything interesting to say about games — but he did.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: What sort of games do you play? Are you a big gamer?

Pete Holmes: I’m not a very relevant gamer. I’m often behind the times. Shadow of Mordor is the only game I played while the buzz was still happening, so I got that fun feeling of being able to talk about something while people still wanted to talk about it. I get really into a specific game and I often will play only one game at a time.

I’m currently playing Grand Theft Auto V, and I don’t just drive around hitting pedestrians. I really appreciate the mind of the programmer, which I think is kind of an underappreciated aspect of a game. Will they allow me to do this? I’m pretty excited to meet some of these guys.

As an industry outsider, what do you think is interesting about gaming right now? What things jump out at you, as a gamer?

I was just joking with somebody the other night … Does the FCC know what we’re doing? [laughs] It feels like the Internet: The wild west, this un-marshaled, wonderful thing where kind of anything can happen. I’m going to keep referencing Grand Theft Auto because that’s the game I’m playing. If it were a movie, people would be up in arms — religious groups, or whatever. But it’s in a safe little gray area where it’s a video game, so it’s kind of allowed to be whatever it wants.

There’s the adult-ification and the cinema-fication of games, but for the most part it’s seeing games get elevated to the status of an action film. In certain ways, they’ve surpassed movies, at least in terms of how long they entertain you and the way in which they entertain you.

Do you ever play games online and get recognized as yourself?

Sometimes people ask me for my gamertag, but I don’t like to give it out because I’ll only let them down. But I play a lot of Street Fighter IV online. Growing up, I loved fighting games in the arcade. The idea of an endless, at-home arcade where a new challenger always awaits, and after you buy the game you can just play for free until you’re done playing Street Fighter — if I could tell that to 12-year-old me, he would just ask what utopian paradise I lived in.

I guess the closest successor to that sort of arcade experience is eSports, all these people watching other people play at a really professional, competitive level. Does that interest you? Do you follow that?

Nope. I like video games that make me feel like a winner. Those games are really, really nuanced. I used to love Madden, back when it was on the [Sega] Genesis and really easy. But those games have evolved to the point where it depends on whether your quarterback was looking in the direction he was throwing, and that sort of stuff. I’m more of a “let’s play a game where you can be in a reclined position” [guy], as opposed to getting very good at it.

What do you think is funny about games right now? What makes you laugh?

Once you get to the point where games are so much like reality, you can actually have observations about the game that are as funny as, say, Jerry Seinfeld observations about our world … if that makes sense. The world becomes so intricate. I love Bioshock Infinite, for example. And I’m going around, looking at the art, and I’m like, “Somebody had to make that art. Someone made a painting of that guy, and it’s hanging above a fireplace.” It’s fun to consider how much they considered it, and it adds to my level of enjoyment.

I don’t know if kids growing up with games that have just always been amazing will appreciate it as much as someone like me, who grew up playing stuff like Myst. I’m like, “Holy shit, look at that sunset! That’s amazing.” I was playing GTA V with my girlfriend and I noticed how they made — you know how, when you look at the sun, you get a ring effect, almost like a rainbow? They put that in the game. So when you come out from under a bridge, you see that. That, to me, is very funny, that people got in a room and made a reality that is so similar to our own.

And I can’t speak for all comedians, but I know that we have that in common. Comedians are trying to construct their reality with words, they’re saying, “Have you ever noticed this? Have you seen people like this? Have you ever felt this way?” And a video game can be a very similarly comedic experience. When it nails the nuance of a situation just perfectly, often the response is to laugh.

I hadn’t considered that a satirical game like GTA might be funnier because of the ways in which it’s realistic.

I also find that dramatic moments that they get right in any game’s cutscenes, if they can nail that, that always delights me in the way that good comedy does as well. It’s so funny to have these actors covered in motion sensors, their faces covered in little dots, recording dialogue. I don’t even know if the actors are together when they’re recording dialogue, which means they’re just talking to themselves, which means they’re even more talented, which means it’s even more funny if they make it sound like these two people are arguing. I don’t know if the actor who played Michael ever met the actor who played Trevor. Why would they?

On the topic of games imitating reality, have you tried anything in virtual reality?

No, I keep waiting. As someone who’s interested in gaming and the nature of reality, I’ve always wanted to have my mind blown by, like, an Oculus Rift thing. I think that would be really fun.

It seems like a lot of people in Hollywood are interested in using it to make movies, too.

Can you imagine if, like — we’ve known, since 1982, that when we get to the point that you put goggles on, you can just be inside of the medium. It has been the subject of science fiction and fantasy since we’ve had those genres. The fact that we’re alive and can have something even kind of close, I mean, I’m on board. The best thing I’ve seen is still the Money for Nothing video. So if it’s better than that, I’ll be on board.

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