Season 7 Episode 3 Jan 27, 2022

Chatbots Could Help Mitigate Eating Disorders, Retro Slavic Adventure Games, NFT Twitter Profile Pictures, and More


Video games can tell you a lot about a region's past.


This week we talk about Twitter NFT profile pictures and some stories about US government versus big tech. Then we speak with Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, about a research paper she co-authored about how the use of chatbots could help prevent and mitigate eating disorders. Then we speak with Maroš Brojo, general manager at Slovak Game Developers Association, about a wealth of unearthed slavic text adventure games from the 80’s that he and his team have translated and featured at the Slovak Design Museum.


Saron Yitbarek

Disco - Founder

Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.

Josh Puetz

Forem - Principal Engineer

Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.


Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft

Washington University School of Medicine - Assistant Professor of Psychiatry

Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and digital mental health. Her research aims to develop and test innovative digital solutions to reach the large number of people in need of care for mental health problems, including eating disorders, but who are not receiving services.

Maroš Brojo

Slovak Game Developers Association - Executive Director

Maroš Brojo is the Executive Director of the Slovak Game Developers Association. He is the founder of the Game Days developer conference and works as a curator of the multimedia collection at the Slovak Design Museum.

Show Notes

Audio file size





[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.


[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.


[00:00:22] SY: This week, we’re talking about Twitter NFT profile pictures and some stories about US government versus big tech.


[00:00:29] JP: Then we’ll speak with Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, about a research paper she coauthored of how the use of chatbots could help prevent and mitigate eating disorders.


[00:00:42] EC: Eating disorders are really a major public health concern. These are very deadly psychiatric illnesses. They are the second most deadly of all mental disorders, only following opioid use disorder.


[00:00:54] SY: Then we speak with Maroš Brojo, General Manager at Slovak Game Developers Association, about a wealth of unearthed Slavic text adventure games from the ’80s that he and his team have translated and featured at the Slovak Design Museum.


[00:01:09] MB: There is another game about stealing half of the recipe of Pepsi Cola, which is another example of how the Western culture was already slowly spreading in these, even before the fall of the socialist regime.


[00:01:23] SY: We can’t seem to get away from NFT news this season because this week Twitter launched a new feature that allows their paid Twitter Blue users to show off one of their NFTs as their profile picture in a new hexagon-shaped profile picture box. So for 2.99 a month and whatever probably absurd amount you paid for an NFT, you can now be a verified NFT owner on Twitter. However, even though Twitter uses OpenSea’s NFT’s authentication system, some users have bemoaned that people can simply right click on the NFT profile picture, save the image file, mint it as a new NFT, and then upload it without actually owning the original NFT. One of my favorite quote tweets about this is by author Casey Johnson, who pokes fun at somebody complaining about this saying, “NFT guy finding out NFTs are just JPEGs never gets old.” There have also been a slew of apps that allow people to easily recreate the new hexagonal profile picture box for any image they upload. So it looks like Twitter might have some tweaking to do in order to appease the NFT bros who want to show off their crypto wealth. Josh, what do you think about all this?


[00:02:41] JP: I'm sorry. Can you guess? Okay. Okay. So let’s start, kidding aside. This is one of the first like actual concrete benefits I can point to from buying an NFT. Like in theory now, you can get a special icon on Twitter, if you also pay for Twitter Blue. I mean, that’s something, it would also seem to point to like Twitter must think that the NFT market is legitimate, that it’s here to stay, it’s worth supporting. It seems like kind of a random feature though. Wouldn’t you say? Of all the features that would get me to pay 2 99 a month for Twitter Blue, I don’t know that NFT profile pics was the one. Like if they added, I don’t know, like editing my tweet after I posted it, I’d give them $50 a month for that. But they’re never going to give us that.


[00:03:37] SY: Yeah. This was confusing for several reasons. Number one, because, frankly, I forgot all about Twitter Blue, just to be honest. So I was like, “Okay, there’s a benefit to something that they’re trying to use to monetize Twitter. Cool.” So that was a nice reminder, but the thing that was so confusing to me is we have so many complaints about our social media experience, whether it’s edit on the Twitter platform or protecting people from harassment or the spread of fake news. I mean, there’s so much to think about and prioritize when it comes to creating a safe and exciting and welcoming social media platform that it is confusing, that this made the roadmap and then was implemented. You know what I mean? That’s the part that made me go, “How did this product conversation go?” You’re on the engineering team and you’re like, “Of all the things people have asked for, for Twitter, people have issues and problems on Twitter and all that, you know what sounds really important and we should really make sure we get out there? NFT profile pics. That’s the one.”


[00:04:51] JP: Well, I will say that Twitter is a large company. They have tons of engineers working on I’m sure a variety of their features. And I don’t think it’s a zero sum game, right? I don’t think all of their engineers work on this and all their engineers would work on something else.


[00:05:05] SY: Right. Of course.


[00:05:05] JP: Right. Also, I think the conversation, maybe it wasn’t started by an engineer, an engineering team, until very recently someone at Twitter was very interested in NFTs and cryptocurrency. Jack Dorsey, known as a crypto enthusiast and former head of Twitter, was very, very involved in NFTs and crypto. And here’s my conspiracy theory. Remember a couple of weeks ago when Square changed their name to Block, and that was accompanied by the most ridiculous and lovely profile pics on their leadership page with their images in blocks. If you flatten those blocks to 2D, they look like hexagons. There you go. There’s my conspiracy theory.


[00:05:53] SY: All right. I think that makes a lot of sense to me. I buy it.


[00:05:57] JP: I think maybe this was like a top-down kind of a thing. Maybe this has already been processed before he left, but it’s a little confusing. On the other hand, I like the pace that Twitter is adding features. They’re doing things again.


[00:06:10] SY: They are doing things.


[00:06:11] JP: I’d rather they throw this stuff at the wall and see what sticks with users. And I’ve got no problem with a service that you could pay to remove some of the ads and get extra features. More power to them. I'm up for it.


[00:06:22] SY: That’s true. Absolutely. Yeah. And when I hear about a big organization like Twitter that does not have NFT origins, like it’s not an NFT company, it’s not a crypto company, it’s a social media platform, when they’re getting involved in NFTs, it kind of makes me wonder just about the different roles that different institutions and different people with power have in legitimizing the NFT market, that’s what I think about is right now we’re seeing a ton of celebrities get involved, right? And they’ve been called Grifters and they’ve been called scammers and they’re like, “Oh, you’re already rich and you’re trying to make more money from your audience.” It’s not necessarily seen as like very highly of those people to be involved in NFTs when they like declare their crypto interest. But when it’s like companies getting involved, like what does that mean? What does that mean for the future of NFTs? Is it legitimizing it? Is it still kind of shady? How does it affect the future of this world? It’s something I’m really interested in keeping an eye on.


[00:07:28] JP: This is a big stamp of legitimacy, and for a lot of people, this is the first time that they will encounter NFTs. Well, I mean, in theory. I think if you’re on Twitter, you have to work pretty hard not to see the letters, “NFT,” crash your timeline. But this may be something that spurs some users to say, “Oh, NFTs, how can I get a cool or different profile pic shape?” Similarly, like how Twitter added the verified mark on some users’ profiles. For a while, there was a huge rush to try to get your profile verified and what does that mean, et cetera, et cetera. It could be something similar.


[00:08:05] SY: Absolutely.


[00:08:07] JP: So the next thing we want to talk about are a couple of stories about the US government versus big tech. The first is about a piece of legislation called the American Innovation and Choice Online Act that was advanced this week through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 16 to 6 vote. The act would prohibit big tech companies like Amazon, Meta, and Apple from discriminating against smaller businesses that rely on their services. For example, the companies couldn’t rank their apps and products higher in a search over third-party apps or products. The large companies who this would affect would be defined by their market cap and how many users they have. There’s been massive lobbying by big tech companies against the act and Apple CEO, Tim Cook, also brought up concerns that this might affect how the company allows its users to opt out of being monitored by apps. We’ll see the legislation passes with the full Senate, but given how bipartisan this initial vote was, it’s definitely looking like it might. The next one we want to talk about is how Google is being sued by three states in the District of Columbia claiming the company has purposely created deceptive language and complex settings around its Android location tracking functionality. The Washington DC complaint states that Google purports to, “Give consumers control over the location data Google collects and uses, but Google’s misleading, ambiguous, and incomplete description of these settings all but guarantee consumers will not understand when their location is collected and retained by Google or for what purposes.” So we just kind of wanted to wrap these two government legal stories together as there’s a lot of action happening in the US government against big tech. And I think for a while, we didn’t see a lot of action or we saw a lot of like big showy, grand standing…


[00:09:48] SY: Showy, yes. I feel like there’s a congressional hearing every other day. And I’m like, “Oh, cool! Okay. So then what? What happens now, now that we’ve heard, okay, now that we’ve heard and we’ve learned? What do we do with this?” And it felt like nothing was really happening. And especially with the Senate, that’s a vote that is against big tech. And that’s very interesting. So it’s still early days, but really interested to see that maybe there’s some action happening, not just a lot of leaks and reports and conversations and feelings or maybe some actual legislation might come out of things. That could be interesting.


[00:10:27] JP: It’s interesting to me that as the number of congressional hearings has continued, CEO attendance has dropped sharply at those events. Zuckerberg is not even remoting in anymore. They’re sending, I don’t want to use the word underlings, they’re sending subordinates, they’re sending associate vice-presidents and other executives in place of the CEOs to patiently explain to Congress once again what does these companies do. And I think as we’ve seen that happen, I wonder if United States law makers are getting the idea that, “Grilling a CEO in front of television cameras doesn’t do much actually.”


[00:11:08] SY: Doesn’t do anything.


[00:11:09] JP: Passing laws is what’s going to happen. I think what stood out to me about these laws is that there’s bipartisan support. And for our listeners that aren’t in the United States, that’s pretty rare nowadays that our two political parties agree about anything. So it seems like this stuff is on a pretty good track to get passed. What do you think about that?


[00:11:29] SY: You’re absolutely right. It feels like our political parties agree on less and less every day, which is very disheartening, and yeah, they’re always on polar opposites of every issue. And even when I think about big tech regulation, like what comes to me is more of the Democratic Party, like Elizabeth Warren is very top of mind when it comes to that conversation. And so it was really interesting to read up about this and see a lot of Republicans that are like, “Yeah, man, you guys have too much power. We got to do something about that.” And so seeing that it’s a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle, having an opinion and taking a stand, I thought was whether or not something actually happens, the fact that they’re finally coming together on something is kind of heartening.


[00:12:09] JP: Yeah. It just points out to be. I just think like, “Wow! It must be really bad if two political parties agree that there needs to be clear language for consumers and limits in the power.” That’s a sign that you’ve gone too far.


[00:12:25] SY: Yeah, absolutely. Coming up next, we talk about how chatbots could help prevent and mitigate eating disorders after this.




[00:12:51] SY: Here with us is Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Coauthor of the Research Paper, “Effectiveness of a chatbot for Eating Disorders Prevention: A Randomized Clinical Trial”. Thank you so much for being here.


[00:13:08] EC: Thank you so much for having me.


[00:13:10] SY: So tell us about this paper. What was the objective behind this study?


[00:13:14] EC: The main objective of this study was to test whether a computer program that simulates conversation with a human could significantly reduce eating disorder risk factors, like weight and shape concern and internalizing what we refer to as the “thin ideal”, that I should aspire to be ultra-thin and look a certain way in women who were already at high risk for an eating disorder. So they were already demonstrating some of those elevated concerns about shape and weight or other indicators of an eating disorder. And we tested whether that chatbot was more effective in reducing those risk factors among women who received access to the chatbot right away versus those who were randomized to what we call a weightless control condition. So they were told and provided they get access to the chatbot at the end of the study.


[00:14:13] JP: I’m curious, what was the inspiration behind this study?


[00:14:16] EC: So along with my research group, we’ve been doing work for quite some time on digital programs for eating disorders, prevention and treatment. And eating disorders are really a major public health concern. These are very deadly psychiatric illnesses. They’re the second most deadly of all mental disorders, only following opioid use disorder. So for that reason, these are problems that are really important to prevent in the population, and we’ve done some work showing that we could use a digital intervention to prevent these problems in young women. But we’ve found in the past that those programs were more effective if they involved a human moderator. So somebody who could provide you some feedback on your progress in that program, who could help you think about how to apply some of those concepts and skills that you’re learning in your daily life, et cetera. But of course, anything with humans involved is more expensive, right? That becomes a less scalable kind of program. And unfortunately, here in the US at least, there’s not a lot of resources put toward prevention of mental health problems. That’s not like reimbursable in most cases. And so we were kind of thinking about, “How could we creatively think about how to provide some aspects of human moderation in a digital program, but in kind of this less expensive, more disseminable way?” So that’s where we got to thinking about a chatbot and this idea that kind of this robot could not only provide you that digital eating disorder prevention program in a more engaging format via your text messages and short bits of information, but that that chatbot could also offer some aspects of human moderation. So that was really kind of the inspiration for the current study.


[00:16:27] SY: Tell us a little bit about the methodology of it. How many participants were there? Where did you end up finding them, recruiting them?


[00:16:35] EC: So for this study, we recruited 700 women who are at high risk for an eating disorder. And they were mostly recruited through social media, through our partners at the National Eating Disorders Association. We recruited some through their online screening tools. So that was the main strategy that we used for recruitment.


[00:16:57] JP: So let’s talk about the chatbot that you used for the study. I’m curious, how was it created and what kind of conversations did it have with the participants?


[00:17:09] EC: So the chatbot was based on, as I mentioned before, we have this existing eating disorders prevention program that in past years in studies was delivered via kind of like a traditional web-based program. So information, you could view on a browser in a session that might’ve taken 20 minutes to read through, which I think at the time this was first developed probably now or 20 years ago, I think individuals maybe had patients for that reading information on a browser, right? This was kind of like before mobile apps had taken hold, reading longer information. But of course now everybody wants to do a million things in no time. So what we did was take the content of that web-based program and really distill it down to its essential components and rework it for delivery in a conversational form with this chatbot. So the chatbot had text-based information it was providing. We also created some infographics to convey some of the concepts that we wanted to get across and covered content like challenging the thin body idea or thinking about sort of beauty and attractiveness in a broader fashion. Ideas about media literacy and social media literacy and how we need to keep in mind that not everything that we see in the media or on social media is really a reflection of reality. Information about the idea of social comparison and healthy eating and how to engage in eating habits that can really set you up for health versus making you more vulnerable to disordered eating, how to deal with critical comments from others about your body, how to address any engagement in binge-eating, and then some ideas for how to keep this work going even after the program was over. So it was all really done in these like short conversations with the chatbot, five to ten minutes max.


[00:19:16] SY: And is the idea that the participants knew it was a chatbot and kind of knew they were talking to a computer? Or was it supposed to simulate a person and kind of trick them into thinking it was a live person that they were talking to?


[00:19:32] EC: Yeah. Good question. No, no, we certainly didn’t have the intention to trick them. And I think folks could have probably figured it out pretty quickly if we tried to do that. Similar to any of us, if we reach out to like a store, you get that chatbot and you know it’s not a real person. So it can do like pretty well, but obviously it’s not perfect. So no, they knew it was a robot. There has been some research to suggest that actually engaging with chatbots and robots because they are totally anonymous can encourage really honest disclosure, maybe of issues that you wouldn’t be willing to share with a real person. For those who engaged with the chatbot, we were pretty impressed by some of the deep things that they would share. So for some people, they may have never talked with anybody in their lives or professional about these issues and maybe this chatbot, this robot was the first place they were expressing these concerns, but it gave them that opportunity to try doing that in a safe space and maybe even see that that’s not so bad, which we didn’t gather data in this study. But in others, I think there’s even some idea that these kind of anonymous digital interventions can help break down stigma that you may have about getting mental health help and maybe make you more likely than to reach out to a real person.


[00:21:02] SY: What were the results of the study?


[00:21:04] EC: Pretty promising overall. We were pretty impressed. So for weight and shape concerns, we did find that women who received that chatbot right away did improve in that area more so than the control group at both three months after they received the chatbot and that finding persisted through a six-month follow-up period, which we were pretty impressed by. We also found that some indication that the chatbot may actually prevent the onset of eating disorders. So we found greater odds of not converting to an eating disorder case, if that makes sense, in individuals who received that chatbot versus control at both that three and six-month follow-up period. So overall, we were pretty impressed by that. We didn’t find differences in changes in internalizing the thin ideal between our conditions and we also didn’t find changes in comorbid symptoms that we didn’t directly address, like depression or anxiety. But I think, overall, the chatbot did reduce what we really hope would reduce, which is those weight and shape concerns, kind of being our primary target.


[00:22:24] JP: You mentioned it briefly before, but I wanted to come back to one of the specifics of the study. I’m curious how you control in a study like this. Is it some people got a chatbot with unhelpful suggestions, some people got a human response? I’m really curious what the control looks like.


[00:22:43] EC: Yeah, no, great question. This is always a question that researchers have to really think through for their study. What’s going to be the best control condition for my study? Who am I going to compare my individuals who get my intervention to? And in this study, our control condition was a waitlist control. And so that means that those individuals were told that you’ll get access to the chatbot in six months. And we did end up doing that, but basically for the whole period of time that we’re assessing them, which was at baseline at three months, at six months, they’d never gotten any kind of chatbot content. So we’re kind of comparing it to nothing, if that makes sense, which I think in this case was a fair comparison because as I mentioned earlier, prevention is pretty hard to come by. Most people don’t get access to an intervention to prevent their eating disorders because of kind of, again, issues of reimbursement and access to care. And so that represented for us a pretty good real-world comparison.


[00:23:52] JP: That makes sense.


[00:23:54] SY: So I’m curious, what were the takeaways? What do you think the results of this study show about eating disorders and society in general?


[00:24:02] EC: Yeah. I mean, I think eating disorders are common. It didn’t take us too terribly long to recruit for this study. These individuals are out there and risk for eating disorders is highly prevalent. And while our sample was primarily white, non-Hispanic, we did recruit a good number of individuals from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and demographic characteristics. So I think that further demonstrates, which is consistent with the rest of the literature, that eating disorders really don’t discriminate. They affect individuals of all demographic groups. So certainly, our results kind of do fit with that. And again, I think it also suggests that individuals do want access to help with these concerns and that they were pretty accepting of this pretty brief, totally automatic intervention. So I think it suggests some really good potential for chatbots to function in this capacity. I also think that probably similar chatbots could be developed for other problems, individuals who are at risk for depression or anxiety or other mental health concerns. So I think it really suggests kind of an openness to technology. Those were some of the big takeaways for me.


[00:25:33] JP: You bring up a great point. I was going to ask. Do you think there’s other types of health intervention these chatbots would be useful for as well?


[00:25:39] EC: I do. And the research in this area is just starting to explode. There’s newspapers coming out every day. And within the industry space as well, I think there’s continued enthusiasm for chatbots. We partnered with an industry partner X2AI, who develops and delivers on chatbots for various mental health issues. So it was really exciting to work with this commercial partner, which is going to then lead to opportunities for our team to disseminate this widely. And actually our study was funded by the National Eating Disorders Association, which is the largest nonprofit dedicated to eating disorders in the US. And we work with them to also do screening for eating disorders on our website. So through their site, we screen about 200,000 people a year for eating disorders. So we really reached very high volumes of people. If people come to their website to take a screen, perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority screen positive for an eating disorder or having risks for an eating disorder and most have never received any kind of help. Over 85% of people have never had any kind of services. So we’re going to be able to work with NEDA and X2AI to actually make this chatbot publicly available through NEDA and pair it with a screen. So for individuals who screen is having risk for these problems on their screen, they’ll have access immediately to an intervention that could be helpful to them. So that’s super exciting. I think that moving forward there’s lots of opportunities to do similar work in other areas of mental health. There are chatbots especially with available screens to immediately deploy interventions to individuals who need help. I also think that chatbots, I think, are really good in particular when they have a defined purpose. So right now, our chatbot was primarily a rule or algorithm-based chatbot. So it could understand some basic text, but it couldn’t understand everything. And we are taking steps to work with a colleague at Dartmouth. One of my authors on the study, Dr. Nicholas Jacobson, to harness artificial intelligence to make the chatbot smarter and perhaps be able to better address comorbid concerns like depression and anxiety. As you heard me say, we didn’t really unfortunately make a dent in those problems, but we’re hopeful by having sort of a more flexible chatbot in the future. We might be able to, but I think that for the time being, while chatbots are still somewhat in their infancy, they’re really good for like a defined purpose. So something else my team is doing is we’re also working with NEDA to develop and test a chatbot that could be paired for individuals who screen positive on the NEDA screen, if they actually have like a clinical eating disorder. So they’re more than just at risk. And we find that they’re not in treatment, giving them a chatbot to even increase their motivation for care and help provide some tailored recommendations for what kind of care options even exist because access to treatment for eating disorders is a huge problem. Eighty percent of people never get any kind of help. And in eating disorders, there can be a lack of motivation for treatment sometimes, which is unlike other psychiatric disorders. These disorders can be what we call really egosyntonic, they feel like part of who you are. And there can be a lot of hesitancy around kind of “giving up” the eating disorder. So right now we’re currently working on developing and testing this chatbot that may also help to motivate you for treatment and get you into treatment, if you have more of those clinical levels of concern, because the chatbot in the paper we’ve been talking about is, again, more for those high risk people.


[00:29:54] SY: How do we get from this research to applied solutions?


[00:29:59] EC: Well, I mean, I think this is one of the best case situations I’ve ever encountered in my work where I talked about we actually have the opportunity here sort of within months of publication of a paper to immediately deploy our chatbot in the real world via this partnership with the National Eating Disorders Association and X2AI. So I think that that is really exciting. And I think that overall it’s really important for researchers to always have at the forefront of their minds, “How am I going to have these findings make a difference? How am I going to apply my work?” Or at least that’s always a passion of mine. So I think it’s really important to consider from the outset when you're designing interventions, including digital ones, to really design them for dissemination and have a plan for that from the get-go. We’re really thrilled that that worked out so smoothly for us this time around, which of course isn’t always the case, but we’re really fortunate to have amazing partners in NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, and X2AI.


[00:31:14] JP: You touched upon this a little bit. What are the next steps for this research and your research and your team? What do you hope comes out of this and where do you go from here?


[00:31:25] EC: So I think next step for this specific line of work is absolutely working to make the chatbot smarter and more flexible. So individuals can have deeper conversations with it and it can respond to more complex sentiments from folks. And my colleague, Dr. Jacobson and I are really excited to hopefully pursue that. We’re currently in the process of trying to obtain funding for that work. So we definitely hope that’s on the near term for us. And I think, overall, my team is just really committed to developing and testing digital solutions to address this just enormous treatment gap that we see in eating disorders with so few people having access to care. And there are certain populations where that problem is even worse. For example, individuals from lower income backgrounds or those who are on Medicaid or public insurance. Those individuals have, oftentimes, really no access to treatment because we have so few providers in our country trained in these problems. Many people can feel intimidated to treat individuals with these problems. So we also, through a project that’s also being funded by NEDA, my colleague at the University of California, San Francisco, and I, her name is Dr. Erin Accurso, we’re going to be developing a mobile intervention for lower income individuals with binge-type eating disorders, like bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. So we’re really excited about that line of work. And I also, yeah, have another project that is just launching where we’re developing and testing a mobile app to support women with anorexia nervosa after acute treatment. So after they’re in treatment like inpatient or residential treatment because we see such very high relapse rates after that kind of treatment. Fifty percent or more of people will relapse. And so we’re really interested whether having this kind of like in the moment app-based support could help to address that massive problem that we have in our field of individuals relapsing. So those are two projects that are in the works that we’re really excited about and those are some of the highlights.


[00:34:00] SY: Well, thank you so much for talking to us about your amazing research and congrats on the success that you’ve seen so far. Thank you so much for joining us.


[00:34:07] EC: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity.


[00:34:19] SY: Coming up next, we talk about what a trove of Slavic text adventure games from the ’80s can tell us about that time in the history of the region after this.




[00:34:45] SY: Here with us is Maroš Brojo, General Manager at Slovak Game Developers Association, and Curator at the Slovak Design Museum. Thank you so much for joining us.


[00:34:55] MB: Hello, everyone. Happy to be here.


[00:34:57] SY: So tell us about the Slovak Game Developers Association and what your role is there.


[00:35:02] MB: Yeah. Well, our association is a civic association, an NGO that was established several years ago by Slovak developers to basically cater to their needs to have like a common voice. We have several members, almost 30 now. We’ve been active for four or five years now. We organize a lot of events, game conferences. We publish an annual census of Slovak game developers with various statistics and also some catalogs for promotional purposes, help with getting better with education in Slovakia and so on and so on. So a lot of activities, basically everything we can do in our power to make game development easier in Slovakia.


[00:35:44] JP: So tell us about this multimedia collection of 1980s text adventure games you pitched to the Slovak Design Museum and you’re curating there now.


[00:35:53] MB: I mean, obviously there’s a lot of people around the world in other countries that already are doing academic research and professional research when it comes to the history of digital media, multimedia, and video games. I sort of had this dream to start something like this in Slovakia too. I had some friends in the Slovak Design Museum. So I proposed to them this idea that I had, that we should maybe start a multimedia collection and within that collection maybe I could be working on some historical research of Slovak games. And we started doing research basically. And it’s been going on for two or three years now. We have a huge list of Slovak games that before I didn’t have any idea that there were more than 1,000 games in Slovakia, which was a country of only five million people, with a fairly short history. So slowly we’ve been preserving all these games, contacting their original authors, gathering documentation, and various other activities, and exhibition is also planned.


[00:36:53] SY: And how did you uncover these games?


[00:36:56] MB: Well, to be honest, it’s not that romantic as some people imagine. You don’t really search for cassettes or CDs on some people’s attics or I don’t know where, but basically there are these huge communities of people that already do this for you and have been doing this for years because every platform, for example, has its own fan base. So Cassette Spectrum Computer, Atari Computer, or the NES Console or Super Nintendo Console. There are big fan bases and communities on the internet where they gather all the information that they can and they also already do some preservation and copies and backups. So what we actually had to do first and foremost is to crawl through all these databases and find all these people and communities online, and then somehow we’ll be able to identify which of those games that are already archived on online unprofessionally, but still better than nothing, are from Slovakia. And that’s basically where we started. And then moving from there, we contacted some of the authors of the games and they remembered that they might have some hard drives or a floppy disc still at home and they checked and we also found some of the games like this, but I would say the 95% of all the games were basically already archived by the fan communities online, which is really awesome because I started doing this 10, 15 years ago when none of the researchers and multimedia historians care about video games, but it’s changing now. I mean, there’s a huge interest nowadays. So they’re slowly like flipping from the fan approach to the professional history and preservation type of approach.


[00:38:41] JP: One of the things that really struck me about this exhibit was not only that it’s computer games from the ’80s, but it’s computer games from Slovakia. And I’m wondering for our non-Slovakian listeners, if you can kind of describe what the computing scene was like in the ’80s in Slovakia. I’m curious, what kind of computers were common? Were computers very common in people’s homes? What platforms were used? How did people even get games?


[00:39:08] MB: Well, first and foremost, we had no consoles over here because they were not worth importing. One of the main reasons, or I would say there are two reasons. The socialist regime was not really interested in games and they didn’t consider this to be a valuable thing to import and to sell in Slovakia. So there were no Nintendos or Super Nintendo consoles imported. But also another important reason, I mean, they could have been smuggled into Slovakia. That’s something that was done fairly often, but people weren’t really interested in them because the storage media of these consoles were cartridges and they couldn’t be copied so easily. And ordering cartridges from abroad in an average salary in the Eastern Europe was several times smaller than in Western Europe was basically something unthinkable because it would cost you like half of your monthly pay. So that’s why we didn’t have consoles, but we had some computers. We even had our own computers here. One of the first ones was PMD 85, manufactured in Didaktik Skalica. Skalica is a small town in Slovakia. So this was a factory directly in Slovakia that was manufacturing this 8-bit computer, but the most popular platform and the most popular computer was that Spectrum was quite popular in Europe and it was often smuggled into Slovakia from Germany. It didn’t run on cartridges. It ran on regular audio cassettes that you could easily copy. So this was one of the reasons. You actually connected it to a player and then you just push the play button and you had this sound like a dialogue internet connecting and was loading a program from a cassette. So this was a computer that there were several thousand people in Slovakia that had these computers. And then we also started manufacturing our own consoles at Spectrum, which were called Didaktik Gama and Didaktik M computers. These were two models. Then there was also Didaktik Kompakt that already used floppy disks, but these first two models they use cassettes, like I mentioned. And they were fairly easy to manufacture because there were Russian clones of the processor that ZX Spectrum used and it was very easy to replicate. So this is what we went with and then we had, it’s a wild guess, but I would say that we had around several tens of thousands of computers in the ’80s, especially those Didaktiks and ZX Spectrums. Then we sort of skipped the 16-bit era in the ’90s and people slowly started transitioning around 1995, ’96 to a regular ’86’s PCs.


[00:41:43] SY: So why did you feel it was important to feature this collection of games from the region?


[00:41:50] MB: I mean, I don’t know why, why is it important to actually showcase anything that comes out of your country is important personally for you as part of your cultural heritage. I mean, for me, it doesn’t really matter if it’s games, if it’s, I don’t know, some sort of dish on books, paintings, films. It can be anything. I mean, if I would be a film buff, first and foremost, I would probably be trying to do the same for films. But since the game is my go-to medium, that’s why I started doing this with games. And I think we are, in the last, I don’t know, 10 years, there’s like this big transformation when it comes to perception of games. More and more people are starting to accept games, not only as a means of entertainment, but also as something that can have its own cultural artistic or narrative value that can communicate some interesting ideas. And even though these games were often fairly simple, in the beginning as with any other media or art form, it is an important part of our history. And I don’t know, let’s say if we will have like very, very artistically valuable games in 10, 20, 30 years, we will definitely want to know how the beginnings of the medium look. We already know this about “global history of games”. There are all the books written about the US part of history of games, also about the Japanese part of the history, which were the two countries that were dominant in the arcade era, but slowly people are also starting to show more interest into these so-called local histories of various media. So also with games, I mean the history is obviously always written by winners and by the most dominant producers of the medium, but every country also has some small parts to play too. So this is our small part, the Slovak part.


[00:43:47] JP: One of the really cool things about the exhibit is that not only are the games available to play in their original language, but you’ve also got ahead and translated a lot of them into English. I’m curious how you selected which games to feature and which games to translate.


[00:44:05] MB: The most important thing for them for most for us was that we only selected text adventure games because these should be the types of games that should be able to carry the most amount of meaning and meaningful information about the period in which they were created. From these periods, we also have, I don’t know, platform or games or action games, but these don’t really need translation. You can get fairly easily through the menus, even if you don’t speak Slovak. But when it comes to text adventures where the whole point of the game is reading through an interactive text, you really need to understand what you’re reading and what you’re playing. So now the first condition was that all the games will be text adventures, and then another one will be, I mean, and this is not something that’s already in the public domain, it’s 30, 35-year old games. So we still needed to get the confirmation, license agreement for translations from the original authors. So then also another important condition was if we even were able to find the authors. So some of the games that we would like to translate we really can’t because, I don’t know, the author, maybe we know the name, but his name is so common that there are 150 people in Slovakia with that name. So we can’t really find him. But in the end, we managed to find like maybe 80% of the people. It’s sort of creepy, but everyone is on LinkedIn or on some other social media. You can find almost everyone nowadays without any problems. Last but not least, since we already work and we had a colleague, Stanislav Hrda, which was one of the members of the whole project team, which is actually the author of one of the games, Šatochín, he has very good historical knowledge and context. We also based the selection partially on his recommendations.


[00:45:53] JP: Let’s talk about the exhibit and the museum. How are these games being curated? I’m really interested how are they stored, how are they presented at the museum and online as well.


[00:46:04] MB: They’re not really curated. I mean, right now we have the approach of basically trying to gather everything that was created in Slovakia, staying neutral when it comes to judging the quality of the production and the games, and trying to get as many games, as much documentation as we can, all the books and computers and stuff, basically like preparing the collection and everything that we collected for someone that would do like a curated approach that could write, I don’t know, a book on the history, decide what the most important pieces of software were in Slovakia. We’re still not there yet. We have a lot of work when it comes to gathering. So we’re not really selecting what is important and what is not important. Everything is important for us right now. When it comes to storing the games, we have a server in the museum, a local server with two backups. So it’s not really like, I don’t know, a vault where WikiLeaks stores all this information. It’s a very simple solution. But we are also thinking about if we should start thinking about long-term storages on those big capacity cassettes that are used nowadays for long-term storage, which is something that we will definitely be looking into further on.


[00:47:23] SY: What was significant about the specific games to be the first tend to be translated and featured? Anything special about them?


[00:47:31] MB: One of the games is important because it makes fun of the regime as a very direct, like humor. Rambo is there. So that’s something that’s very cool and might be quite interesting because it showcases how the Western culture impacted Eastern European culture in the ’80s already. There is another game about stealing half of the recipe of Pepsi Cola, which is another example of how the Western culture was already slowly spreading in these, even before the fall of the socialist regime. There were some games that were technically quite interesting where you don’t only input regular commands, commands like go left, go right, but you actually can have some sort of a dialogue and so on and so on. So I would say that it’s very individual, depending on each of those games.


[00:48:19] SY: What were the political ramifications of these games at the time?


[00:48:25] MB: Yeah. I mean, again, it’s not really dead romantic, as some people might imagine. Basically games were ignored by the socialist state in the ’80s. It wasn’t the dominant medium. It wasn’t super widespread, since there was no official distribution, nobody sold software in the stores in Slovakia. This was only part of a very small and enthusiastic homebrew community. I don’t know why it wasn’t like in the US where everyone already played on consoles or played arcades in the ’80s. In Slovakia, it was several thousand people or several thousand kids ranging from 15 to 20 years old, which is also let’s say the average age of all the authors of the games that we translated. So these games were not really that widespread to be noticed. So no ramifications at all.


[00:49:13] JP: You mentioned that you were able to track down many of the developers. Are there any common themes about the people that developed these games at the time? And I’m kind of curious, like, how they made them?


[00:49:26] MB: Yeah. They were pretty much labors of love. You couldn’t really monetize it in any way because there was no way of officially distributing and manufacturing those copies. So these were, most of the times, people in their teens that somehow go to a computer or their parents bought them a computer and they slowly started to tinker with it. They got their hands on some games from other countries and they started thinking that maybe I could also create something like this and they started experimenting with programming. And then they were shared among friends and the friends shared those games with other friends. And this is how the games spread. This is also why they stayed under the radar. You couldn’t really buy them in stores. And then also there is another interesting common theme but not at the time of the development when it comes to the people that developed it. But in the present, when I was getting in touch with most of them, I got in touch with like 20 or 30 people that created games back then. Most of them actually ended up as programmers, which is a really cool, I think, and a lot of them even made it into big companies like Microsoft or Cisco and all these big global players when it comes to IT and software. So you can actually see on this example when you have a really cool hobby, it can grow into something really cool and useful when you grow up.


[00:50:55] SY: Thank you so much again for joining us.


[00:50:57] MB: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.


[00:51:09] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts.