Spike VGAs Interview: Meet Your Host, Zachary Levi

In this interview, the Chuck star talks about bringing some nerd cred to this week’s big gaming awards show, how we’re all nerds, shares his first gaming obsession, as well as the bittersweet feelings of wrapping up his cult favorite NBC show after five seasons.

MTV Geek: What attracted you to hosting the VGAs?

Zachary Levi: Well, a couple of things. [Producer] Mark Burnett, who I just think is a really smart, savvy, talented dude—and a really awesome guy as well—who I’ve had the pleasure of running into over the last six months at various things, who produced the Emmys that I kind of do a little stint in, he just approached me and said “I’d love for you to host the VGAs.” And when Mark Burnett asks you to do something like that, you’ve gotta say yes.

On a personal level, I love the idea of hosting an awards show. I think that sounds like kind of a fun thing to do. And I’m a huge gamer, so to me it seemed like a perfect fit. You know, if I’m going to host my first awards show, to host the VGAs would be a lot of fun and something that’s near and dear to my heart. So I just felt like it was the right thing to do all the way around.

Geek: What’s the prep and rehearsal been like?

Levi: Oh we haven’t done any of that stuff yet. I mean, I’ve been wrapping up the last episode of Chuck. We shoot our last day on Wednesday, so I’ve been in the middle of this season pretty much during all this time. And Friday is our first rehearsal on the stage and all that stuff, so I haven’t really gotten the feel for all of that just yet. We’ve had conversations about production: the Black Keys are going to be playing music.

I think one of the things about the VGAs that is cool and different is that it’s fun. It’s really kind of a more laid-back atmosphere and gaming is fun. Almost more than anything, it’s fun, it should be fun, it should be taken as the amazing interactive entertainment that it is. And now, more than ever, it is by far the most lucrative entertainment genre out there. I mean, I think it’s sort of fitting to have videogames awards.

One of the things I made really clear when I jumped onboard was, “This year I want it to be clear that I’m about the gaming audience, I’m not about the Spike audience.” I’m happy to work on the VGAs on Spike and make the network happy, but I want to be respectful to the community of gamers because I am one myself. And [with] the humor involved, I want it to be smart, I want it to be honest, and accurate.

Gamers are not just a bunch of bro dudes hanging making a bunch of jokes about balls and boobs and stuff like that—it’s a very broad audience. There are those guys and there are some regular people that game as well, there are so many female gamers now, and kids and parents—so much family gaming that goes on. I mean, it’s important to entertain the spectrum of that and be true to the gaming audience so that they can all tune in and enjoy the award ceremonies. So that’s what we’re shooting for.

Geek: It sounds as though you feel like gamers are poorly served when people try to market to them or see “gamers” as one big, indistinct audience.

Levi: Yeah, I think that as with anything, paradigms take a little while to shift. There has been a kind of stereotypical “gamer dude” that has been representative for the gamer community in the years past. But I want to spearhead or be a part of changing that.

You know, with my company, The Nerd Machine, that’s what I’ve been trying to do is tell everyone, “Look, everyone’s a nerd.” Being nerdy just means being passionate about something including everyone—the coolest people on Earth are passionate and therefore nerdy about something whatever it is, whether it’s sports, or gaming, or technology, or fashion, or beauty, or food, or whatever.

And I think it’s important that people start embracing the idea that videogames are commonplace. You know, even people who wouldn’t call themselves “gamers,” they have computers, they have Solitaire. Well guess what, Solitaire’s a videogame. Minesweeper’s a videogame. These people that sit around on their iPhones or iPads or other tablets or other smartphones that kind of burn time playing Angry Birds, well guess what: you’re a gamer. Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you are participating in gaming entertainment and great gaming entertainment at that.

So, sure, the stereotypical gamer is the dude who drinks Mountain Dew all night, playing Modern Warfare like I’ve been known to do from time to time. But gaming is such a broad spectrum, and it’s important to embrace the entire spectrum and to be respectful to that entire spectrum because again, gaming is essentially changing the world.

I mean, I’m sure you’ve read the article about the HIV virus—part of its genome, part of its structure was cracked by gamers sitting around at a university. You see, that’s incredible to me, the way it’s applying itself to the world in so many different ways, the way we’re going to interact with our world in so many ways, the ways gaming technology is making its way into the broader world—like Xbox Kinect is going to be a huge part of that.

Years ago, people sat around thinking about how cool it would be if you could talk to your television or swipe you hands around in the air and your TV could sense it somehow. Well guess what: really, the first company to integrate that into the mainstream was Xbox with the Kinect. And I think that’s going to be widely applicable now, not just to home entertainment to watching Netflix or checking your Facebook or Twitter or gaming, but also in the way that people are taking Kinect technology and applying it to other sciences. Whether it’s a little UAV hovercraft navigating its way autonomously through a room or whether it’s how people are doing 3D mapping and projection, I mean it’s incredible. And it’s a world I’m definitely most nerdy about.

I am majorly passionate about technology and gaming so I want to be at the forefront of it. I want to bring all those worlds together and the VGAs seem to be a really good step in that direction.

Geek: What was your gateway drug? What was the first game to get you hooked?

Levi: Oh gosh. When I was a really young kid—I was born in 1980—so, Colecovision and Atari had been around for a little while and I had some neighbors that had an Atari, and I played a little Pong and stuff like that. But my real gateway drug was Super Mario, the first Mario. I mean, arguably, the first Mario was Mario Brothers, but really, I think the first Mario that people give credit to was the original Super Mario Brothers.

And I remember vividly—I mean, I was gosh, four or five, maybe—getting to the end of the castle at the end of World 1-4, and beating Bowser, and being so proud of myself until Toad told me my princess was in another castle. And I was livid. I was so angry. “What are you talking about? I just beat the guy, I just beat him! Where’s Princess Peach, what’s going on?”

But then you really get hooked. You realize you’re on a journey, you’re on an adventure. You’re on this interactive story and I think that’s what’s allowed videogames to have such a stronghold in people’s lives. Because you’re not just passively watching a movie or a television show, you’re interacting with that entertainment, you’re interacting with that world.

And those lines are getting blurred more and more every year and I intend to blur them even more, hopefully. If I have my way, I want to go start making really interactive television. Stuff where you can sit and watch real actors do a real series and they can get into some kind of gun battle and all of a sudden your television prompts you to pick up your controller and all of a sudden, you’re playing a first-person shooter. Or you can just opt out of it and just watch whatever we made with production. Either way, you’re given this adventure that you can step into a little bit more.

And I love that Bioware is talking about with the next Mass Effect you’ll be able to speak directly to the characters through Kinect. I mean, that’s incredible, you know.

So, essentially since Super Mario Brothers, I’ve not been able to put down a videogame controller.

At one point, actually, when I was 21, I had spent so much time gaming in my life, and I was 21 and I was pursuing acting pretty heavily, and I was like, “I need to grow up, I need to put this controller down.” And I put it down and I retired my N64—you know, I never actually had a PS1, I was never a big fan of the original Playstation and I was a huge fan of the N64 and Goldeneye and that was my joint for the longest time.

But then Xbox came out. A friend of mine had Xbox, he had Halo, he had four controllers, and I was hooked right back into gaming after a six month hiatus and I haven’t been able to put it down since.

Geek: How’s it feel hitting these last few episodes of Chuck?

Levi: Man, it’s such a mixed bag of emotions, you know? On one hand, I’m looking forward to whatever the challenges God’s got in store and on the other hand, it’s really sad. This has been my family for five years and fans have been a part of that journey and the family. So to kind of close the final chapter is a very surreal thing.

But it’s been a very beautiful experience and an amazing ride and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The Spike TV VGAs will premiere LIVE on Spike TV, MTV2 and Spike.com on Saturday, December 10 at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT.

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