Alex Peake. Photo via
Talking to the Future Humans is a column in which we speak to the people who have shaped, are shaping or are trying to shape the future, or at least ideas surrounding the future. It is the mindchild of Kevin Holmes, Managing Editor for The Creators Project.
Imagine if, when you were at school, you'd spent all those dreary hours staring at a blackboard playing computer games instead. Learning about science and stuff, obviously, not just wheelying along the San Andreas seafront on a Faggio spraying bullets in the air while SF-UR blasts 808 State's "Pacific" out into the humid night air (sigh). See that memory? If our minds had been engaged like that during our school years, we'd almost certainly all be in the 1% right now. If only Alex Peake had been one of our teachers, because with his company Primer he wants to use video games to teach people the skills they need to get rich and change the world. See the sky? You can touch it, you just need a really long ladder and some computer code.
What Alex wants is for kids to learn the art of hacking, which will he thinks will set them on the path to employment and power – and he’s started the world off down this merry path by creating Code Hero, a game that teaches users game programming but is also, handily, a first-person-shooter. Meaning you can learn while also blowing shit up. It sounded better than double French with Mrs Talbot, so I organised a Skype chat to find out more.
VICE: Hey Alex, it's Kevin from VICE. Are you good to talk?
Alex Peake: Hey man. I'm OK. It’s 2.30AM here and all my teammates are passed out on couches in the office.
Was there a party?
No, this is just the usual pass-out-on-our-laptop-keyboards routine, so it might be better to talk later in the day, actually.
On the other hand, it may just get crazier tomorrow as we're prepping for our first rock show.
We're speaking at Extreme Futurist Festival and playing a live set, so we'll be last speakers of the day and the first band. Our band is called Primerist. We play industrial rock.
What are you going to be talking about at the Extreme Futurist Festival?
Some very bleeding edge hacking we previewed at BayThreat InfoSec conference a while back. Code Hero is going to expand beyond just game programming in the next release to delve down the full stack.
I presume by 'full stack' you mean teaching all kinds of different skills to do with hacking. What will that involve, exactly?
So users will be fully-versed in the language of coding.
Yes. But once they learn the full stack, that's when young children could start hacking all sorts of things, so we have to do everything we can to teach them the hacker ethic of ethical hacking.
What is ethical hacking?
An ethical hacker is a computer and network expert who attacks a security system on behalf of its owners, seeking vulnerabilities that a malicious hacker could exploit. To test a security system, ethical hackers use the same methods as their less principled counterparts, but they report problems instead of taking advantage of them. Ethical hacking is also known as penetration testing, intrusion testing and red teaming.
So by teaching people these hacking skills, what do you hope they'll take away from it? Life skills? Job skills? Bringing down the system skills? The whole spectrum?
The whole spectrum. We don't just want to train job-filling professional fodder for the industry's hiring needs. We want to inspire job-creating hackers who will invent new industries.
And teaching via gaming will stop them getting bored and running off to get drunk on cheap cider?
To young people, computers are one big game of discovery and their love of gaming makes learning about computers through games natural for them. The seminal short story "Cyberpunk" by Bruce Bethke was about kids who grow up with computers as a first language, and as native speakers they run circles around the computers-as-a-second-language adults to shape the world in their image.
You’re effectively telling them that while the big, bad adults screwed everything up, they can still do what they want?
What we're really doing is giving them the game development tools to make all the other games that need making, to teach all the other things that need teaching, to inspire people to pursue all the aspirations that need achieving. This is why we say that Primer's true purpose is to make all knowledge playable.
Do you think that with improved AI you could have complete computer-based remote learning? Say, classrooms of the future might be virtual, set in a gaming environment like Second Life?
There's a great opportunity for human mentors to remotely interact with players through the game worlds to exceed the capabilities of the game AI mentor, and the AI will keep getting closer to simulating that human ideal. Primer is undertaking a revised Turing Test.
Screencap from Alex's Code Hero game
Testing the machine's ability to act intelligently?
Right, but not just to act convincingly 'human' in a chat, but to mentor a human and teach them something as well as or better than a human teacher could.
Will they always need these mentors?
Not always, because on the other hand, a lot of learning happens in games because you give the player incredibly powerful tools to experiment on their own. The AI's job then is mostly to prime the player, and to give them meaningful challenges to solve by playing around with the tools at their disposal. This kind of power is games at their best, providing the hands-on experience that takes years of expensive mistakes to achieve in the real world.
Games aren’t just for playing stoned with your mates.
Ha. Some would say we're coming out of a long winter, because the field of "edutainment" is so dormant that I hesitate to use the word in association with what we do as game developers, lest people think our games aren't fun. But I spoke at Humanity+ @Caltech about how games like SimCity made me want to create worlds, and I think the new wave of meaningful, aspirational games is just about to break. I call the next wave 'aspirational games' because when you really highlight what is cool about doing something in real life, you can use the entertainment value to make an aspirational career path irresistible.
I cite America's Army and Rock Band as arguably the finest aspirational games so far, because they taught me to shoot real guns and inspired me to start a Tactical Corsets fashion line and a rock band.
So by presenting people with this artificial world, it can in turn have a real world impact by showing people something they otherwise may not have seen or imagined?
I did a BIL 2009 talk [a kind of unpretentious, anyone’s invited TED Talk] about this where I posted a hypothetical: How could Bill and Ted create a rock and roll utopia without Rufus time travelling to anoint them saviours of the future?
It’s a good question.
If they played enough Rock Band 3, they could learn a lot about how to actually start Wild Stallions and change the world.
How would that work, then?
If Bill and Ted learned the real guitar, drumming, keyboards and singing in Rock Band 3, they could take the next step and write their own songs. I spent three years building a gamification system called Empowerment to extend the learning gained in games to concrete action in the real world. I described how they could use Empowerment to take their Rock Band 3 skills to the next step with "missions" guiding them through getting real instruments, writing songs and finding their core message for their lyrics to inspire a utopia: "Be excellent to each other." This slogan has become the real-world motto of the global hackerspace movement and is written on the back page of our Hackerspace Passports.
I didn’t know Bill and Ted were so influential.
The Bill and Ted movie inspired the hackers who've built 900 hackerspaces [places where hackers can hang out and do hacker stuff] in the last four years. Now it is gaming's turn to inspire the next era. We live in the shadow of our imagination of ourselves and we become the world we wish to see. If we make games about a future worth living in, we inspire ourselves to make life imitate the art.
It’s a fascinating idea.
This was literally the inception of the Empowerment, Primer and Code Hero projects: I was a teenager downloading techno music and reading WIRED. Being exposed to electronic music culture and computer hacking futurism, you can't help but think: 'How do we make the world cool enough to match the futuristic music we use in science fiction movies, so that when you open your eyes you're living in that future?'
We play video games, which seems almost too good an option.
In a way, it helps people become more proactive and it's a way to keep people dreaming of a better place. If you look around you, the world is far from perfect.
So you think hacking will become more prevalent in the future? What about the negativity surrounding the word 'hacker'?
I struggled for years to find the right noun to describe what kind of person we should inspire people to aspire to be. 'Activist' has too much baggage. 'Proactive' is close. 'Empowered' was too vague. 'Doer' sounds smug. 'Hacker' started off as a misunderstood label, because it was mostly mentioned in the news as a kind of criminal, but the founders of information technology are hackers and the hacker manifesto's tenets were all present in the MIT Railroad Club, which was the halcyon of Hacking. In actual fact, hacking means people who dive into technology to solve problems creatively.
That definition has unfortunately been twisted out of shape by the media.
At its best, hacker creativity and out-of-the-box thinking breaks all the rules and blazes trails like the 'Think Different' [the Apple advertising slogan] crazy ones who change things and push the human race forward. Sometimes those boxes being broken are laws and though there is a tiny amount of black hat computer crime that happens, most security hackers are white hats who keep us safe with their security research.
But that doesn’t make good headlines.
Sometimes the laws hackers push against are illegitimate. For instance, hackers like Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, and John Perry Barlowe created the Electronic Frontier Foundation that is the driving force behind defending online privacy and internet freedom. There is no denying the fact that the hottest growth in our economy is coming from hacker entrepreneurs building startup companies that create jobs and provide real hope for our economic future.
The hackers will save us!
The software freedom advocate and startup hacker is the kind of person we want Code Hero players to become. But there is a term that broadens hacker culture so everybody can participate and parents can relax: 'maker'. The 900 hackerspaces worldwide come from hacker culture but they encompass a very inclusive maker revolution. Do you cook? That's foodhacking: Baking is science for hungry people! Do you sew? That's threadhacking! It is a 'maker' future, and making people makers means making them the makers of their own futures.
It’s beautiful, man. Do see the future of industries being more about smaller companies and individuals taking on the bigger corporations?
Yes, our name Primer comes from The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a sci-fi book by Neal Stephenson, a book about the twin revolutions of nanotechnology and Primer game mentoring. Nanomanufacturing brings the power to make things atom by atom, but Primer mentoring brings the power to make minds idea by idea, and we're focused on implementing the Primer through Code Hero first. But we may make a game about nanotechnology and physical sciences next.
By 'primer' you mean something that teaches people, at an elementary level.
The future is in the hands of startup cofounders who might be meeting each other, like Steve Jobs and Woz [Steve Wozniak] did in school to make their first electronics and play their first pranks, or at a hackerpace today, like our Code Hero players are doing to make their first games and robots. Today we use Makerbots [mechanical toys that can be constructed from kits] to introduce people to making simple things, but tomorrow they might be manufacturing complex things that turn economics upside down.
Great, maybe they can help with the Euro.
We're going to start by using video games like Star Trek's Holodeck to simulate this nanotech future we wish to see. But science fiction is becoming a science reality. I grew up wanting a Star Trek replicator like Picard uses to say: "Earl Gray, hot," and now we can give a young person a Makerbot with a Frostruder [a kind of motorised froster] that can literally print out a frosted cupcake.
They didn't even have those in Blade Runner. Where did you draw inspiration for the Primer project from?
I was initially inspired by the Mac itself, and the power that Steve and Woz and Apple gave me to explore the world of computers. Steve Jobs used the metaphor that computers are like a bicycle for our mind, and Doug Engelbart [early home computer pioneer] described the whole project of personal computing as intelligence amplification to make people better at getting better so they'd get better and faster all the time.
What about science fiction, you mentioned that before.
I was playing fantasy role-playing games on the computer, but they paled compared to tabletop Dungeons and Dragons where you could really use your imagination to do almost anything you and the storyteller thought up. I was living in a real-life cupboard under the stairs, in a kind of wizard school called New Avalon, and I was bored in regular school, so I was in computer science mentorship programs at Western Washington U and Simon Fraser University.
Wow, you actually lived in a cupboard under some stairs. So, what happened next?
I put two and two together: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and insufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from evil. The poor technology we are limited by probably ruins more lives than most of the problems we know about that we haven't invented solutions for yet. I concluded that there should be a way to make games that encourage our creativity in a way that could teach us about things better than the education system was doing, that could teach us to create more games to teach more things, and that could inspire us to invent everything else that needs inventing and bring about the future that science fiction promises us.
When you talk, it makes me want to go out and kill somebody. But in a good way! Game on, Alex.
Follow Kevin Holmes @Stewart23rd
Previously: Talking to the Future Humans - Dr Jack Sarfatti Thinks I'm an Idiot