Bing Gordon is 53, happily married, two daughters. In other words, he is not what you expect when imagining the hard-core computer gamer who's awake at 3 a.m., living it up on Earth & Beyond, an online role-playing sci-fi galaxy reminiscent of the Final Frontier.
In this world -- where the Asteroid Belt Alpha is the Route 66 of the solar system, where interaction with other players is key -- you can be a warrior, an explorer, a tradesman.
Gordon plays a tradesman, building and trading equipment for spaceships. But when he ran into a problem, trying to build a shield during one of his sessions, he asked for help. So 25-year-old Karim Mahrous, a fellow tradesman, stepped in. For more than three months -- several times a week, sometimes way beyond midnight -- the two played Earth & Beyond.
Gordon, as he tells it, was impressed at how good Mahrous was; Mahrous, as he tells it, was first skeptical of Gordon.
Is this guy in a midlife crisis, glued to a game this late?
"He asked me what I was interested in," Mahrous remembers of that night in February 2003. " 'Video games,' I typed.
"Then he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. 'Play video games,' I typed.
"Then he started questioning my school background," says Mahrous.
"Then he said I should apply to Electronic Arts.
" 'Yes, I have,' I typed with a winky face, sort of like a joke, 'but nobody wants me there.' "
Gordon typed back, "I know some people."
William "Bing" Gordon is standing in the star-studded studio lobby of Electronic Arts -- the world's leading interactive game publisher, a surefire hitmaker in the $7 billion industry.
There's Aragorn with a sword, 007 with a gun, Tiger with a golf club.
But the real star, at least in the hallways here, is Gordon himself. The chief creative officer is decked out in green cargo pants, matching black, pink and green shirt and socks, and doing his jaw thing, unlocking it and locking it as he speaks in a low, grainy voice. "Be lifestyle," he says, "to make lifestyle."
"I just came up with that."
He's almost 6 feet 3, a towering figure, literally and figuratively, in the booming interactive game industry, where the Lord of the Rings, James Bond and a recent release, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 (preceded by Madden NFL 2005) are multimillion-dollar hits. Though he doesn't directly design these games, Gordon, the funky guy with the funky socks, is instrumental in making them into hits -- including the best-selling PC game ever, the Sims.
The Sims 2, released in mid-September, is a game sequel of Spider-Man 2 proportions. In its first 10 days, the $49.99 game sold more than a million copies worldwide, more than 50 percent of that in Europe.
To understand EA is to understand Gordon. In his job title, the emphasis is on "creative." It's a godfather position, the nutty professor meets the high-energy football coach, and it allows him to dip his hands into any pot he chooses. He's been on both the creative side and the business side of the company. He knows how to play a game. He knows how to market a game.
This month, three games -- a spinoff of the Sims and two Lord of the Rings titles -- are at the top of his list.
He's been with the company since 1982, when EA was little more than an idea; a year later, the company's first magazine ad was published, asking, "Can a computer make you cry?" Now, with Gordon the only one of the initial staff still at the helm, the company -- with divisions EA Sports, EA Sports Big and EA Games, with studios in the United States (Austin, Los Angeles, Orlando, Walnut Creek, Calif.), Canada (Vancouver and Montreal), Japan (Tokyo) and England (London) -- boasts revenue of $2.96 billion.
If you've got a kid into video and computer games, or you're into games yourself, clocking in somewhere between one and three hours every week in front of the big-screen television or your desktop, Gordon is your wizard behind the curtain, as pervasive an influence on pop culture as any television or film executive.
"TV and movies are stories down hallways with one hallway," says Gordon, who studied literature and drama in college and graduated from Yale in 1972. "You don't get a 'What if?'
"In interactive games," he continues, "there's not just one light at the end of the tunnel.
"You can make a right instead of a left.
"You can ad-lib a story on the fly."
A Cool Place to Work
EA's resident genius doesn't have an office. Instead, Gordon has a cubicle on the fourth floor, near the Bada Bing! conference room, across from a framed hockey jersey signed by Jason Woolley, the Detroit Red Wings defenseman. On "the campus," as EA folks call the headquarters of 1,800 employees, where the median age is in the late twenties, Gordon prefers the open environment. He savors the impromptu conversations it allows.
"Secrecy," he says, "is the foundation of politics."
Here, there's a room with a pool table, foosball, air hockey, free arcade games. There's an in-house mini-Blockbuster, the Information Resource Center, with more than 12,000 items (DVDs, video games). There's a 24-hour gym. There's a huge lawn where employees, on their lunch break, play flag football (on Thursdays) and soccer (on Tuesdays) as co-workers, most of them in jeans and T-shirts, some in flip-flops, look on.
So when Gordon says he's the man "who goofs around to make EA a better place to work," you quickly figure out that he's not kidding.
Though he's never really just goofing around.
It's 10:20 a.m. in the corner office of Michael Perry, the design director for the URBZ: Sims in the City. This new project is the Sims gone hip-hop, a game about bling, VIP parties, cooler digs. Reputation matters. Image is everything. The Black Eyed Peas, in what EA says is the first for an interactive game, are rerecording nine songs from their upcoming album in "Simlish," the URBZ's own language.
Perry's office, like Gordon's, sits on the fourth floor of the studio building, which holds a labyrinth of cubicles. Once a week, Gordon meets with the URBZ senior team to gauge its progress -- what works, what's too confusing, what's not hip enough. In other words, they get "Bing'd," a term coined by Frank Gibeau, the senior vice president for marketing.
"He completely deconstructs your strategy," says Gibeau, who's worked under Gordon since 1991 and was groomed by him for his current job. "He challenges you."
The URBZ, employing more than 100 people and in development for more than a year, has gone through several focus groups that are of "every mix in age, sex, race," says Sinjin Bain, the game's executive producer. Bain knows that a big part of the game's target audience are African Americans, Latinos and Asians who populate urban centers -- aside from suburban white kids, who are the biggest consumers of hip-hop. Sensitivity is crucial here.
"Do they understand the game? What do they like? What don't they like?" says Bain. "The URBZ is a parody of urban life much like the Sims is a parody of suburban life."
Of course, there would be no URBZ without the Sims. The Sims is a rarity in what is still a male-dominated industry: It attracts men and women equally, transcending age, race, ethnicity. The game is, in fact, compelling in its mundanity; the Sims live in a sitcom -- "but a sitcom where you help write the script," says Gordon.
This is where Gordon comes in. The first 30 minutes of the game is "what I specialize in," he says. Why? "Because I have a glib personality," he deadpans.
The screen pops up. Bain sits in a chair, legs crossed; Scott Amos, the senior producer, stands in the door; Perry, the designer, sits on his desk, taking notes on a pad. Gordon, feet up on the desk, his right arm resting on a table full of colorful Legos, sits in front of the television.
Then an URB appears on the screen, and words pop up: "Choose Your Style."
Gordon grimaces, does his jaw thing.
"Can we make that cooler? That doesn't sound like MTV," he says. " 'Style' is a good word.
"How about 'Style an URB'?" Gordon asks with a sigh.
"I like that," says Bain, cocking his head. Amos nods. Perry takes notes.
The game comes out next month.
Crushing the Competition
Last year, Electronic Arts' 4,400 employees worldwide produced 22 titles that each sold more than 1 million copies. Five sold more than 4 million.
Other interactive game publishers are scrambling for second place.
Since 2000, the Sims, now translated into 17 languages, has sold more than 36 million units of various titles (The Sims: House Party, The Sims: Hot Date) worldwide. Since 1989, Madden NFL -- named after the iconic coach and commentator John Madden -- has sold nearly 37 million units; Madden NFL 2004, with more than 5 million units sold, was last year's best-selling video game. With games such as Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour, EA has continually dominated the "franchise model": publishing a new version of a game every year.
This is an industry rocked by technology, and changes in computer and video games are quick, shifting every three or four years. For example, the visual artistry in games such as Doom 3 -- "it's the year 2145, and you're a Marine newly assigned to the facility's security detail" -- is packed with detail, so stunningly real that you wonder: So now what? New consoles such as Xbox Next and PlayStation3 are due in the next two years.
"The new Xbox and PlayStation will be 10 times what today's systems can do," says Gordon. "Do you know what that means? Have you seen 'Finding Nemo'? It means 'Finding Nemo' graphics in real time. It means heightened visual realism."
Think of it this way, says MIT professor Henry Jenkins: The industry, tracing back to the days of Pong, to the rise and fall of Atari, to the birth of the Sony PlayStation, is only in its third decade, Hollywood circa 1920s.
"To say now that video games will be one of the most important art forms of the 21st century is a shocking claim," says Jenkins, 46, who heads MIT's comparative media studies program and has observed interactive games for 15 years. "But by the end of the century, PBS will broadcast the artistic accomplishments of this medium, and no one will blink an eye. If you look at audience, content and technology, video and computer games, in a more dramatic way, are going through a bigger revolution than cinema did."
Gordon embodies that revolution, a living, breathing bridge from the present to that end-of-the-century reality.
"Bing has history like no one I know of," continues Jenkins, who met Gordon six years ago on a tour of the campus and found the guy he calls "a genius" to be "a bit disarming."
"He really knows the medium as well or better than anyone else. When you watch him interact with his staff, he acts like a carrier, a messenger, of the medium," Jenkins says. "He's able to transmit his knowledge of previous games, in an encyclopedic manner, to the people he's working with now. He'll pull off, out of his head, 'We tried that in 1986 -- this is what worked, this is what didn't work.' "
What's most important, says Will Wright -- the brains behind SimCity, the Sims and the Sims 2 -- is that Gordon is "open to everything."
"Living inside his head somewhere is an anthropologist," says Wright, 44, who's known Gordon since 1997. "He's analyzing cultural behavior. He relates very well to what I call popular culture, but at the same time, he has this ability to step back and think about it in a broader context. . . .
" 'What about this game,' Bing will ask, 'is going to connect to real life?' "
Clicking on All Cylinders
From a preschooler to a high school senior, kids these days live in an age of click, click, click. Television, click. iPod, click. Cell phones, click (for chatting), click (for text messaging), click (for playing games).
This is good news for Gordon, a father of two; 15-year-old Chloe is a high school sophomore and 12-year-old Allegra a seventh-grader. Both are gamers -- and athletes and avid readers, says Gordon.
Their father regularly meets with a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders (Allegra among them) to go over a theory he calls "cross-media": reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," then seeing Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings," then playing EA's Lord of the Rings.
"I'm a huge believer in learning anything from multiple points of view," Gordon says.
He goes on. "What I've noticed is that these kids have great media literacy, but better recall of movie and game scenes than scenes from a book. They remember shots from a show they saw three years ago better than the mental images from the book chapter they read last night," Gordon says. "These kids' conversations are enlivened by questions like: If you had to remake 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' today, who would you cast as Harry? If you were making a movie of 'Of Mice and Men,' what page in the book would you start shooting the movie from and why? If you ask instead: 'Describe the character of Harry, and the reasons why Steinbeck opens like he does,' the kids get dulled."
Isn't that because they play too many video games, watch too much television, go to too many movies?
Says Gordon: "I believe in books. I believe more in 'cross-media' -- how characters are adapting across mediums. When you read Tolkien, you memorize scenes. When you play the game, it helps you be Tolkien."
He's doing his jaw thing. "It's very difficult for people who don't play video games to understand their power simply by watching," he says, "and it's very difficult for people who aren't close to technology to understand how rapidly it can change whatever it touches."
It is a lost battle, he says, if one chooses to look at it as a battle. How about the advantages? Imagine "Romeo & Juliet," in sophomore English with Mrs. Mitchell, and Juliet falls in love with Tybalt?
Personality and Know-How
His first love was acting; no surprise there. He fits the Hollywood type -- the Fred Segal clothes, the shaggy, but not too shaggy, brown hair, the ready, easygoing, open smile. He's also an impressive mimic, very physical (likes mountain biking, skis 50 days a year), very comfortable in his own skin.
Imagine him as the Gentleman Caller, the smooth, charming southerner in "The Glass Menagerie" -- a character he played during his senior year at Yale.
He moved to New York City after college, waited tables at Max's Kansas City, on Park Avenue between 17th and 18th, and lived in Chelsea. He starred "off-off-off-off-Broadway." He got his Equity card with "Siamese Connections" at the Public Theater.
But acting wasn't it.
"I have always been a reader. I love stories," says Gordon, a Detroit native. He's a books-on-tape junkie ("Hollywood Animal," by Joe Eszterhas, was his latest), a fan of Jack Kerouac ("my literary idol").
"I have also always been an immersive participant. I love sports. I tried onstage acting to try to merge the two," he says. "But I didn't like the complications of professional acting -- partly the egos, partly the lack of great roles, partly that I couldn't unfold the story at my own pace."
He left New York, moved to Northern California and landed at Stanford, completing his MBA in 1978. He got into advertising, working at two San Francisco agencies. That wasn't it, either. Then he met Trip Hawkins -- another Silicon Valley icon -- who enticed him to work in the software company he was creating. "You're the only person I know who has an entertaining personality who knows technology," Hawkins told him.
"My dream was that electronics could mount the complications I didn't like so much, avoid the egos and timing issues, and still give me the emotional joy and immersion of the best onstage roles," Gordon says, sitting in his cubicle for a moment between meetings. Photos are everywhere: of a smiling Gordon in the July 2003 issue of Mountain Bike Action; of his family -- his daughters and his wife of 24 years, Debora -- in ski gear, in their vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho. The family owns a home in Woodside, just a few miles from Redwood City, and keeps an apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
He continues. "And heck, to let me take Huck Finn off the river, or to fight his dad, or to make Peer Gynt remain true to Solveig . . . "
An Inspiring Visionary
In a way, Karim Mahrous represents the new generation of gamers. Now 27, he's been playing video games -- Hard Hat Mack, a classic platform game, was a favorite -- for "as long as I can remember."
He wants a job in gaming, a real possibility these days.
So he posted his resume on Electronic Arts' database in 2000. Three years went by. No luck. Then came those meetings with Gordon, playing Earth & Beyond.
The student had no idea with whom he was playing.
"When I pieced together who it was, I was totally inspired that somebody who didn't really need to be playing games anymore -- I mean, he's already got his position, he's already set, he could quit tomorrow -- was online, like at 3 or 4 in the morning, just playing," says Mahrous, a doctoral student in computer science and computer graphics at the University of California-Davis, who completed his second summer internship at EA last month, most recently working in an engineering group. "But he's somebody who plays because that's who he is."
Next spring, when he graduates, Mahrous is hoping his Earth & Beyond fellow tradesman will offer him a permanent job.