Friday, June 26, 2015

A Passive-Aggressive Internet Commenter, Translated


this is a comment someone wrote in response to this recent article about gamers vs. Art and Tale of Tales closing its doors. I found it quite amusing, and would like to present to you a translation: 


“Actually, I believe my straight white maleness affords me some clarity and nuance to this issue that you may have missed in your article. (I mean, obviously you have missed it. I'm just trying to pretend to be nice).

1. Some people have an idea that videogames should only be one particular thing. Obviously you are not aware of this. When things differ from the norm, it makes some people uncomfortable. You must not be aware of this. I am very upset when you imply that a shitty Twine game is built upon the same building blocks as Skyrim, because that makes me feel weird about myself. It's one thing to say that an escapist world with shiny weapons and flying dragons that makes me feel good about myself is a game, it's another to say something with stories from the real world that make me feel bad is.

2. I think somebody once said that shorter is better, which obviously means this principle that I am abstractly invoking out of context is universally better. Especially because some people don't like things that are long.

3. Another part is when people have an attitude that places themselves up against other attitudes. This is wrong. When people are passionate about something, they ruin everything. EVERYTHING! Both sides are clearly wrong!!

Have you also considered my new take on non straight white male characters? Obviously you have not, I'm just being nice again. Once again, my straight white maleness affords me much more nuance to this issue. So let me spell this out for you as well:

1. There's a difference between calling any sort of attention to yourself, which is bad, and making me vaguely aware that you exist as a non straight white male in some kind of nonexistent postracial/postsexist/etc fantasy universe somewhere far in the background, which is probably okay. The first is obviously bad, because it makes me uncomfortable by calling attention to real world cultural issues that upset and/or implicate me and that I use videogames to escape from dealing with. The second is fine because you don't implicate my straight white maleness in any way with any of your feelings or background stories, nor do you acknowledge that they exist in any way (thereby also potentially implicating me).

2. Other people perceive that you are pushing an agenda of inclusiveness, and that makes them feel bad. When they feel bad, they lash out. I’m not saying I do this, though I do. But I will say that when a character becomes not straight white and male anymore, they more easily become a commodity - but they are not a commodity otherwise. That is how Capitalism works, according to Marx.

Then there's the people who are very unhappy with the state of the videogame industry. Or "baddies", as I call them (flippantly, of course =P). Sometimes the "baddies" like to suggest that there's something wrong with me if I don't believe the videogame industry should change. Obviously they are wrong about this, and uppity. This is an act of aggression on their part, which they obviously need therapy for.

...Ok, so I'm not saying internet commenters aren't bad. But maybe you deserve it?”

Friday, February 20, 2015

A 21st Century Digital Art Manifesto

note: this is an edited/updated version of a talk i gave at Indiecade East in 2015
i have to admit that lately i kind of dread the prospect of speaking at videogame conferences.

the events we gather in and the communities we work in, no matter how much we stretch and pull at their boundaries, are still all built around this ideal of games as some kind of super-medium, a kind of Eden or great pyramid that once we find the sacred formula to or reach the top of we'll solve the problems of all culture.

which is why we need diversity and new voices speaking out, right? it's about bringing all new ideas under the umbrella of this - the latest and greatest medium - the medium of the 21st century.

forget about us as individuals, we're all sacrifices on this great altar of "improving games".

this is the same kind of religious devotion to an idealized vision, by the way, that gamergaters will regularly employ to explain the motivation for their own actions.

and we know that, despite how much we try and push and pull at it, an event like Indiecade East is built around this ideal because that's what keeps games culture running, and the money and interest flowing. events like this predicated on preserving some kind of status quo by keeping us all under the umbrella of game culture - something that is profitable.

and that's not to say that an event like this doesn't provide us with a kind of community and a structure, and an audience to engage with that we might not have otherwise. that's what there being money around games does. but it's also self-destructive at the same time, because it breeds a very insular, closed-off way of talking and thinking about what we make - and it ensures we won't reach an outside audience.

which is why i'm taking this invitation to just say fuck all of this and try and broaden the conversation outside of games. maybe it's not worth trying to embark on this from inside the umbrella of a game conference - a place i'm assured will not reach an audience outside of games. but it's worth doing anyway, i think.

++++++++++++++

Coltan
let's talk about the Playstation 2

one of the big minerals used in the PS2 and other electronics is called Coltan. a vast majority of which was mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. from: https://conflictmineral.wordpress.com/the-playstation-war/:

Tantalum—mined as coltan and an integral part of cell phones and Playstations–found itself in short demand, and the price skyrocketed ten-fold overnight.  The “coltan rush” in DRC lead to a vicious fight for control over the mines, and the “black gold” they held.  Farmers near coltan regions were forcibly driven from their lands, villages were brutally attacked, women raped, and thousands displaced. Those not forced to mine by the militia were expected to handover part or all of their payload coltan as a form of payment.

It’s estimated that as much as $20 million a month went to rebel groups to finance war efforts.

...Both the forced production of coltan, and the military power created through its production, would wreak havoc on the Congolese people.

;;;;

it's not too hard to trace the demand for cheap consumer products to civil war and environmental devastation. but in the case of computers and other consumer electronics, it speaks to intense contradictions many of us are living out right now - where easy access to all kinds of tools thanks to ever-present digital media is allowing many groups of people who were voiceless before outlets to engage and be heard publicly. but it comes at the expense of submitting ourselves to these commodities (in the form of consumer electronics) that we get to have no engagement with how they're made or where they come from.

...and these are built from the blood of people who don't get to have the level of engagement with these products that we have (if they have any at all).


from: https://conflictmineral.wordpress.com/the-playstation-war/

but also, we look at images like this. how do we even look at images like this anymore? there might have been a point when these sort of images held an enormous amount of power to change minds, but now no one seems to know what to feel.

for one, it's a very clear testament the everyday human reality that comes from war. it's abundantly clear just from looking at it what kind of sadness this woman is experiencing. how exhausting and endless this kind of devastation is on people who have to live it. how hopeless it is.

in itself, that should be powerful enough to get us to start understanding and empathizing with the end result of our demand for cheap consumer products. but the problem is we've already seen so many images like these, de-contextualized, just in everyday life.

instead of looking at its face we just see an abstract idea when we look at it, or look at it defensively as if it is directly accusing us. a deep truth falls apart into a fragmented world of subjectivity and relativity. we come up with our own justifications for why this has to happen, or throw up our hands and say "well, what can we really do?"

and so even an image as powerful of this falls under the weight of a culture filled with feelings of confusion and dis-empowerment, inundated with other horrible images of suffering and destruction. and these are endlessly warped, repurposed, remixed, rearranged, reassembled to fit an incredible amount of purposes and ideologies. and they can become a meme and then lose a lot of their original context.

i think this speaks to a sort of failure of film in the 20th century - we thought that if we captured the image, straight, as it is (like in this image), then it would change people's minds: that a kind of documentary realness could strip everything away so that people would see behind the mask into the ugliness, and all its complexities.

there's a famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard, from his film La Petite Soldat: “To photograph a face is to photograph the soul behind it. Photography is the truth. And the cinema is the truth 24 times a second.” it's a hopeful, idealistic sentiment that captures much of the strivings of social realist art in the 20th century; that a thing like a soul is inherently captured in the technological medium. through this act of capturing reality as, we can see the truth.

what maybe speaks more to truth is in Michael Haneke's quote "film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth". because technology is a filter. it only presents us with one machine snapshot of a moment, not the entirety of it. and so what we think of as the actual, documentary truth as depicted by the camera might actually be much less fundamentally real than a subjectively depicted one that incorporates what is silently omitted from a "realistic" depiction.


Credit: Jesse Kanda

it might seem terrifying that, through technology, we can never approach capturing the real truth of a moment. we fear that technology always makes truths wither away into relativity. but i think this ability to warp, and rearrange, and reassemble endlessly, instead of being a terrifying new distortion of the human psyche, can actually help us delve into much greater and deeper truths and realities than straight photographic depiction ever could. that layer of abstraction affords us a freedom we are often afraid to embrace. but i think, through embracing it, we find much more creative and expressive outlets to describe the truth of our situations.

digital media is inherently good at capturing the fragmented nature of our reality and spitting it back out as something we might not have ever considered before.


/////////////////////



in the San Francisco Bay Area, the arts are not infrastructurally supported. one of the reasons why is that the wealth is mostly comes towards young people employed by the tech industry, who don't feel the same sort of obligation to fund or support the arts as people in other sectors of business do. old wealth in places like NYC often carries material goods or creative treasures as a status symbol. being a patron and supporting the arts is part of that culture. but in the Bay Area, that patronage is much less present. investing is seen as an entrepreneurial. everything's worth is gauged by how much measurable gain it can bring its investor.

this is from a piece titled "The Bacon-Wrapped Economy" by Ellen Cushing:

if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.

even through sites that try a patronage model like Patreon - which basically pays my rent and paid my ability to come talk at Indiecade East, by the way - you're not really investing to improve an institution or for social good, but you're investing a little bit in someone's work to see some material gain in the work they produce. even if the material is not swag-like bonus items but simply allowing the artist produce more work, the way the service feels more like a marketplace and a kickstarter-style consumer investment model than any kind of institution or community-building one. it's no surprise that many of the most successful users on Patreons have rewards systems for their supporters very similar to kickstarter. there's still implicit rules in place that come from the default mode of operation of a tech business model like this being within consumer culture.

i think this is because the language of consumer culture is what my generation feels most comfortable within. it's easier to sell the idea of patronage when it follows an already-established model. but i also think it's in part because tech believes they're already doing the work of providing the masses with powerful tools free of charge. it's only a matter of finding the ideal system, to make good aggregaters and provide tools where the best and most interesting things will rise to the top. everyone is theoretically on a level playing field, so there's no need for individuals to mediate.

but of course this is built from the great faith that tech places on "meritocracy". because art in these systems is seen only from the angle of how much measurable gain it can bring its investors, from audience numbers, to advertisers, to dollars. instead of some kind of higher-minded ideal of societal good, what comes is a massive reinforcement of the status quo throughout all channels. and so anyone who participates in a site like Patreon is expected to follow the model of its most successful users in order to find funding; the ones who tend to offer more consumer-friendly, middle of the road, unchallenging product. there is no institutional interest in users who might make bring less money to Patreon through more challenging or hard-to-sell work but might affect a vastly greater social good. artists hoping to challenge their audiences are simply not supported in this model.

this is frustrating partly because there is a history within consumer tech companies providing more holistic and powerful tools to artists - tools which often have now been laid dormant or actively suppressed because they don't fit in with the current "closed box"-style tech business philosophy.

i think the killing of Hypercard illustrates a lot of the hypocrisy about art at the heart of tech culture.


Hypercard was a programming tool for Apple computers in the late 80's and 90's. it was a bit like Twine in how it made programming accessible, except it was more visual and intuitive.

it was also, to be honest, much more powerful than Twine. Hypercard was well integrated with the Mac, it was full-featured, and its interface was much less piecemeal and clunky than something like Twine. it was as if Apple actively had an interest in making it as simple as possible for its users to look inside the computer and learn something new about how they work. some games you might have played - like Myst, were made with the backbone of Hypercard. yet nothing like it has been well-supported or embraced since then.

from an essay called "Why Hypercard Had to Die":

HyperCard is an echo of a different world. One where the distinction between the “use” and “programming” of a computer has been weakened and awaits near-total erasure.  A world where the personal computer is a mind-amplifier, and not merely an expensive video telephone.  A world in which Apple’s walled garden aesthetic has no place.

...(When Steve Jobs came back to Apple)...He returned the company to its original vision: the personal computer as a consumer appliance, a black box enforcing a very traditional relationship between the vendor and the purchaser.


((((((((((((()))))))))))))

Black Mirror S1E2: Fifty Million Merits
i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until... i began to see that i had commodified myself. ... i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.  - humdog http://folksonomy.co/?permalink=2299

in the 90's and earlier, the internet was a often place to practice your own identity how you say fit and define yourself away from the confines of society (though admittedly only to those who could afford it and fit within active subcultures). in a way this sphere has really gone away, but it's been increasingly colonized by advertising and business interests.

twitter you're leasing your personality, your brand out to other people to consume. and a lot of communities not traditionally supported within technology's culture have had a much greater influence on cultural discussions in recent years because of it. still, in every part of those discussions with friends and foes, you're being aggregated, and mediated by advertisers. these are super powerful tool for letting you get products that you like the fastest. and it's a super powerful tool of tracing popular trends and then finding ways to monetize them.

there's a lot of emphasis on networks like twitter or tumblr, at least in less professional spheres, about you being yourself and expressing yourself.

on facebook, you and your friends and your personal info become commodities and spaces that can be leveraged and leased by corporate interests looking to get in on your personal space. that's the way huge business interests are able to support and sustain it. most people are aware of this and will accept this for the benefit it provides you with connecting a vast network of active users, but the design of these networks also bring with them less apparent downsides to how that connection takes place.

these spaces are made to feel equal, and egalitarian, and usable - but they're not equal. there are many barriers put into place under the bland surface.

for one, we don't really get to define how interactions happen on these networks. on facebook, we're pushed to use our "real name" or else face deletion, and we're socially pressured into to using it as a space to have fairly shallow interactions with friends and co-workers. on twitter we can only have discussions split in 140 character bursts, and there are few effective tools for dealing with harassment. on tumblr, we can only reblog a post to comment on it, ensuring that substantial continued discussion gets bogged down and lost in the clunkiness of its reply system.

and marginalized people trying to connect with people or build communities are at huge risk being overtaken by toxicity. where there is little regulation, the loudest and most aggressive voices tend to take over and make spaces unsafe. people looking to use this chaos as a convenient platform to throw other members of those communities under the bus and spring themselves forwards are empowered. we've seen time and time again how much communities reinforce oppressive ideas within themselves, the question is how do we change it?

of course solidarity is important, but not everyone is coming into it with equal footing. there's been a lot of talk about intersectionality, but more than ever we see how crucial it is to have a more universal and flexible framework for empowering people that doesn't lie in our own individual biases. of course, the current way of connecting and organizing has its advantages but it doesn't leave any systems in place to lay down more longer term; or more abstract, less directly confrontational ways of addressing issues.

this is why reclaiming these spaces, and redefining the structures built into social media is more of an art than a science. because we are not equal footing, it necessitates creativity and different strategies. and it necessitates being acutely aware of their shortcomings.

honestly, it's a huge testament to the human spirit that we find new ways to relate each other and organize in the midst of these frameworks that are almost certainly not designed for it. movements like the Arab Spring, or Occupy, or the recent Black Lives Matter protests would have never taken off if not for twitter's ability to spread decentralized information very quickly to a huge amount of users.

i seriously doubt this was intention on the part of twitter. right now the digital realm is kind of a wild fight between the efforts to control and regulate the amount of power we are able to exert as users online on these networks vs. corporate powers tightly being able to mediate our interactions. and i think this speaks to the disingenuous way the tech industry uses the image and philosophy of its libertarian, open technology roots while also engaging in an active an effort to close the box and make online spaces into walled gardens.

the recent heartbleed bug was such massive problem because the openSSL framework that google and other companies depend upon is open-source and maintained for free. google doesn't use their resources to pay people to maintain it - they depend on free labor for people to do it for them. had they paid their own people, maybe there wouldn't be such a massive security hole.


[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]



i wanna talk about something else that's been on my mind.

i have a tumblr where i post screenshots of odd videogame worlds (which is not very active anymore, sadly) and through that i discovered some people who were more committed to and better at finding and curating strange cultural ephemera than me: ulan-bator and fm towns marty (among others). the games they post from are often not in English and on computers that are not widely used or supported anymore. these are ephemera that might not be preserved on the internet otherwise.

a couple of years ago a video (NSFW) by a fairly well-known video artist named John Rafman came out for a Oneohtrix Point Never track used a lot of images from fm towns marty's blog without any credit.

this is the response from fellow videogame curator ulan-bator (bold mine):

fmtownsmarty has been doing what he does for years — finding games that most people don’t give a second thought, playing through them despite of obscure outdated technology and language barriers, and presenting them in an original way, with intelligence, integrity and humour. ...

Then comes this fucker “artist” and cherrypicks his tumblr, juxtaposes it with stock internet shock imagery, presenting it on 4chan since I guess maybe he subconsciously realizes that’s about the level he’s working on. Of course 4chan thinks it’s really deep, cementing the impression of most people who don’t know where the actual effort involved comes from. Jon Rafman presents his work as gathering imagery from various fetish and videogame-sites on the internet, at first not mentioning any names. Noticably, the bits giving his video any structure, the final shot of the video which leaves the watcher thinking maybe some thought went into this video, and which in turn tumblr users have screencapped to yet again make gifs of, all come from fmtownsmarty.tumblr.com.

When fmtownsmarty gives Jon Rafman a hint that maybe what’s happened here isn’t all as it should be, he gets a nondescript link in the description on vimeo to his imgur account, neglecting to link to his tumblr where he’s been exposed for ripping off fmtownsmarty’s work, neglecting to say anything about the extent of his “work” that actually comes from fmtownsmarty. Of course Jon Rafman gets seen as a pioneering artist for his slumming in internet culture, much like artists in the past have been “pioneering” for slumming in street art culture or “primitive” culture.

of course some tumblr image blogs are not equivalent to grassroots cultures, but the same dynamic is there. it's important to emphasize that re-appropriation which comes from the top down is not the same as what comes from the bottom up.

so i feel like there's this sort of dichotomy: of new media sprung up from this libertarian promise of freedom on digital spheres, where more people than ever before have access to tools and methods of distribution than they ever would have. but it's also where the spaces are largely unregulated by a larger ideal, and where work that tries escape the bounds mediated by consumer culture that forms the basis of this generation's way of thinking about creative work tends to be intensely marginalized.

and then there's the institutionally-sponsored art world, where art made outside the bounds of consumer culture is supported and there is a kind of civility and sense of mutual respect that comes from interacting in person with people. but it's a world that's crumbling. the kind of breadth or class involvement that these new forms of art might be integrating aren't respected, nor are they seen as relevant. this world must rely on sucking ideas out of these new media and new communities to keep their blood running - and often only do so in a surface, disdainful - classist and racist way.

this dynamic is nothing new, of course, but the form it takes now is a bit different this time. i call this dynamic "the wolf vs. the vampire".

these days, when you're making art in the digital realm, especially new or less-explored kinds of media, it often feels like there's no way to win. institutions will only support your work if you speak to their language or culture. and sub-communities on the internet are designed so that you have to shape yourself to fit into whatever the values of whatever subcultures that exist for them to accept or understand it.

i think a lot of work made today, especially in games, is defined by that dilemma.

the problem is often we expect these systems to mediate and solve problems for us, when in fact there is no easy way out - because it was never built into the system. if we want to envision a way out of this binary, we have to find ways to very intentionally go against the structure of our usual support systems to create one. but when we are provided with a basic level of support, it's hard to want to go against the source of that support and risk your livelihood, audience, and social sphere..

but then, of course, there are people who have nothing.


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South Bronx in the 1970's
hip-hop culture originated in the Bronx in the 70's, where it was an escape from gang violence and barely habitable living situations in the projects that were built there.

breakdancing and turn-tabling are kind of seen as media cliches now, but they came out of this culture. when we see them now, we see the image of them decontextualized, as if they are and were always media fabrications. we forgot that these are things that came out of people trying to create something positive from intense limitations from the environment they were in. we forget they come out of poverty, violence, and racism. we see the product that comes out of the struggle, but not the struggle itself. the act of extracting a product from oppression and then selling it back to people is what capitalism is intensely good at doing.

so, several steps down the line we have the abstract philosophy of empty materialism often espoused by popular rappers; one that is universal and aspirational for young black kids wanting to escape the same old cycles of poverty and violence, but also has a bizarre cartoon grandiosity that takes power away from communities. when these kids are inundated with images of rappers who've made it, the idea of making the best of what you have seems like nothing in comparison the prospect of larger fame, however small. this, in turn opens it's way for homogeneity and an inability to evolve outside the same toxic ideas. Questlove talks some about this in his series "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America"

but in making this critique, however apt, we risk missing out of the positive outcomes of this culture. how it addressed poverty, brutality, and racism in new and clever ways. in a way, i think the full context frees us by allowing us to move past seeing only the failures of a particular culture. if we look at the past as an opportunity for renewal rather than a static gravestone, we can use it to help us in the present.

hip-hop was intensely resourceful. in lieu of nothing else to power their sound systems, d.j.'s for outdoor block parties in the 70's would power their shows by tapping into the power from street lamps.

but the biggest moment is during the NYC blackout in 1977.

NYC blackout
this is from wikipedia:

During the blackout, a number of looters stole DJ equipment from electronics stores. As a result, the hip hop genre, barely known outside of the Bronx at the time, grew at an astounding rate from 1977 onward.

"It was like Christmas for black people... The next day there were a thousand new D.J.'s." - Curtis Fisher aka Grandmaster Caz

in systems built around absolute unfairness, it makes sense that a thing like piracy becomes the great equalizer.

i think it's more obvious than ever now that things that are put out there in the world are going to be re-appropriated, re-purposed and remixed. in the age of easy access to tools and easy distribution, it's something we can do readily and with ease. regardless of whatever judgment you'd like to put on that, it's something that happens and will continue to happen.

where all barriers have been broken down between discrete forms of media - where games become novels become visual art become films become music, and back again, the rules are different than they were before. and making any sense of these new rules might be difficult, but it's also tremendously exciting. because the technology any user has is so powerful, there is literally no way to control and mediate what comes out of it. the realm of the digital is a virtual playground for anyone who can harvest its power.

but as we've seen, cultural change doesn't come from the top down. it doesn't come from venture capital, or non-profits, or particularly insightful talks at conferences. it doesn't come from a particularly well-built systems (which inevitably reinforce existing power structures). it comes from community. it comes from organization. it comes from reappropriation. it comes from chaos, strife, and struggle. it comes from changing the context, and the way that we think about and communicate with each other, and how we have discussions. it comes from the bottom up.

....☀★_☀....

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Being A Marginalized Content Creator On The Internet

The house Notch just bought for seventy million dollars
It's that time of year again, when I scramble to follow the tacit assumption that I need to sum up my work of the past year. But my problem is my sense of individual years as disparate units inherently separable from each other has all but disintegrated. I don't think we're necessarily any closer to answering the questions that have been posed around the games or social justice twitter debates of the past few years. More voices are popping up to the surface than ever before - people of color in particular, and while some issues (like harassment) may have finally broken into the mainstream consciousness - most big videogame press outlets like Polygon or Kotaku or Giant Bomb have consistently shown that they're not really interested in engaging with or even trying to have a real understanding of discussions that are happening in these communities. Videogame culture, whether it stands for or against a thing like Gamergate, is still not a welcoming place for, or particularly interested in hearing the expression of most marginalized people.

So marginalized people who exist in the game world are put in an awkward place. You're supposed to stick around making stuff, and perform that action of being an important voice of outrage whose existence offers comfort to other people - and you might receive some kind of material or social support for that. You might even be asked to speak at conferences. But never is your voice seriously entered into any kind of lasting or larger debate. The reality is that Polygon or Giant Bomb or Kotaku aren't particularly interested in hearing your voice. And don't hope, by the way, that your work will seep out into other, potentially more welcoming, spheres of the internet - because the reality is that they're not particularly open to or interested in any of the work being done in games, let alone yours.

That's not to forget that, of course, Patreon is a lovely thing that has allowed people like me to survive and be able to overcome issues like homelessness. That has been a major positive development of the past year. But sometimes it's hard to decipher whether someone is funding my Patreon because they want me to keep talking, or if it's that they think the money will finally satisfy me enough to shut me up from being challenging to my audience, or talking about issues that make them uncomfortable.

There are these unwritten rules if you want to be a successful content creator on the internet: Making scheduled announcements & holding to them, always keeping your following organized and up to date on whatever you're doing next, being present on all forms of social media, playing to your fanbase - these things are expected of you to be successful. But what this really means, in this day and age, is - be safe and reliable. Don't rock the boat. Follow pre-approved methods of distribution and dissemination of your work. Don't challenge your audience. 

Mainstream press outlets act as if someone as popular as PewDiePie has done a great and amazing new thing by finding the following he has, but the reason he's been so successful is exactly because of how much he plays to his audience and does exactly what they expect of him. Success on the internet is, without a doubt, inherently tied into endlessly stoking a certain kind of predictability and formulaicness to your audience. No one who really wants to foster new and interesting expression could truly argue for this. This is not any kind of admirable model for an artist who cares about the uniqueness of their work to follow. We are always, always destined to fail when put up against someone like PewDiePie.

So we must fight for whatever scraps we can get. We must write our articles to be viral, frame something else we want to talk about around whatever is the latest hot-button issues on our social network, if need be. Just get noticed. And when we do, don't expect that it's anyone's real obligation to follow or engage with our work beyond the week or so that we put it out into the world in. If we don't consistently and predictably do it completely for other people and play 100% into their biases, then we can't expect or feel obligated to their attention.

But it's okay. You can do it for yourself. Keep making stuff, keep being present, and maybe some people will be into your work! But don't feel that anyone is obligated to engage with your work, or respect what you have to say. You have the freedom to do whatever you want! You have the freedom to do whatever you want -- as long as you understand that you're disposable, and if you don't walk exactly in between the lines painted for you, someone else will. And he might be the next Notch or PewDiePie.

------

The world we live in is unstable. I guess there's nothing new about that. The difference is that we're beginning to see that more and more clearly now. 2014 was a particularly intense and upsetting year for a lot of people in many ways. Maybe there was nothing new, but the fact that the world was watching was new. Ferguson is not new, but the twitter discussion and protests around it are. And that's comforting. Things move forward and change because they should move forward and change. There is still plenty of time ahead for us. And thank God for that, because we've only just begun. And we will find our voices. Wherever and whenever and however that might be, however, still remains a mystery.

Friday, December 19, 2014

On "Comprehensive Game Criticism" and Plastic Ghosts of the Past


"we need more comprehensive game criticism" is something i remember seeing a lot of people say on the twittersphere a couple years ago, partly in response to me writing some of my Wolfenstein 3D level design posts. mostly this call seemed to come from dudes who were really into first person shooters. as such, i was already skeptical that they even really understood what i was trying to get at in the first place. this was not about looking like a "serious critic" or raising videogames' cultural clout, just offering some new ways of looking at something strange from the past that interested me. Brendan Keogh's Killing is Harmless seemed to embody the exact opposite of the kind of criticism that i wanted to do - something that fetishized details in the story or game world while willfully ignoring admitting to the bigger picture. the point was to be acutely aware of all the shortcomings while still giving respect to the stranger and more resilient parts of a game, not to pick for little details until i've created an interpretation that i can disregard the overall experience with completely.

ok, i admit that i generally feel anxiety about writing nuts and bolts criticism of things like level design because it never really seems to appeal to anyone outside of a niche audience - namely, people who are fans who are already intimately familiar with the source material, or other game designers. and videogame insularity has become increasingly tired and boring to me.

not to mention writing this kind of stuff gets you immediately lumped in with all other writing of this kind done of the past, even if it's only vaguely related. the biggest problem with many of the level design critiques i've read online is how undiscerning they generally are, and how unwilling they are at interrogating decisions made in the games as anything other than examples of "good design" or "realism" or "atmosphere" or any other vague concept that usually never gets articulated. there's generally no real point of view in the analysis beyond a bunch prescriptive, cliched assumptions you've heard a million times before. detailed game analysis usually just serves the purpose of reaffirming the status quo, through the old traditional (and highly stale) modes of thinking about games.

fact is, videogames have that ineffable "magic" thing for its players, that thing that makes its faithful start to tear up when they think about those grand old game campaigns they took part of. that thing that makes them think they are greater. that make us think we can fix everything. well okay, only if we're the type who hasn't had very many experiences outside of them. but nevermind the outside world, it's about the games, man. it's about the technology. that's the magic key that'll fix everything. we say this as people on the outside watch as we continue to stare endlessly fascinated into these unchanging flat computer-generated approximations of crystals on the TV screen, wondering what's so hypnotizing about it all. and when we can't come up with any new or more decent argument about why we keep staring so intently, it sure doesn't make us look like we know what we're talking about.

the presence of things like level design pieces all end up just feeding back into the same kind of nostalgia tourism - it's a curiosity. it's not the kind of writing we're doing regularly these days. it's boring, it's "necessary", it's a chore, but it's not something that feels altogether very relevant. broad generalizing statements about game culture are in, nuts and bolts are out. maybe a big reason for that is because people doing nuts and bolts writing don't know how to make it feel relevant to the current cultural climate. or maybe it's because most people still just don't really respect games that much. maybe they still have a good reason for that.

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i never really expected that i'd be writing anything about Perfect Dark. Goldeneye is much more memorable to me now - it's more streamlined, and much better evokes the feeling of freedom that comes from old smeary lo-res 3d geometry and elegant compromises that arise from awkward technological limitations. on the contrary, it's hard for me to even think about Perfect Dark without thinking of slow framerate and awkward aiming with the N64 controller; or the bizarrely long insta-fail missions with equally bizarre and cryptic mission objectives. strange that so many resources got poured into making something on a system that seemed to be fighting it every step of the way.

the first word that comes to mind when i think of Perfect Dark: "bloated". it wants everything, it awkwardly grasps at achieving more robust and serious and weighty storytelling than its predecessors, yet its still unhappily caged within its smeary, lo-res plastic shell. it's also highly hypocritical, game design-wise. you have detailed mission objectives to follow, you have voice acted cutscenes, it seems like you should understand how to proceed intuitively but things are still not really clearly communicated. often it seems like the game is punishing you for no real reason, just MISSION FAILED because you didn't insert an item correctly into the right slot. and this might be interesting if it felt in any real way intentional. it mostly just feels stressful and tense, and like the game wants you to conform to its arbitrary and quite frankly poorly-conceived design to proceed. the Goldeneye-esque no save point missions make even less sense here, as they are much longer and harder and full of bizarre details you must keep track of. it just seems like that format was imported unthinkingly, without much attention paid to how it affected the game.

yet if you look past the game constantly hitting you over the head for not meeting its largely un-telegraphed expectations, there are still some moments of beauty in there. i guess that's what Zolani Stewart senses in his "Let's Crit" videos of Perfect Dark. there are spaces in between the bloat that manage a kind of levity, that feel very intentionally constructed.

Zolani eschews some of the usual prescriptive analysis and mostly tries to focus on the game's strangeness. he talks about how Perfect Dark oscillates between being disorienting in its design in an interesting way, and just being obscure in a bad way. he also asserts that Perfect Dark isn't really a shooter, or really best looked at as a shooter anyway, but instead is more interesting as a place to explore strange spaces. i would be less generous, as a lot of the spaces often aren't really strange in an interesting way, just awkward series of hallways that add nothing to the missions at hand other than adding a more "realistic" or robust feel, and as such feel antiquated in a way that something like Mario 64 with more overtly abstracted spaces don't. i will say they do feel much more alive with detail and colorful than Goldeneye, though. their range certainly isn't something i've seen attempted in similar kinds of titles.

it generally feels like he's letting some nostalgia tint the game in a softer light. i mostly can't agree with him on Perfect Dark not being a shooter either, for example, as the game does try to reassure you pretty consistently that it is a shooter, often throwing an absurd amount of guards to shoot as meatwalls to your progress. i will agree with him in part, however - the variety and construction of environments, particularly some of the Area 51 levels, or the final Skedar level, does achieve a sort of abstract but highly detailed sense of place you definitely don't see in games these days. and the juxtaposition of these environments with all the bizarre requirements thrust upon you give Perfect Dark a feeling unlike other games, for better or for worse.

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but let's compare and contrast. my favorite Goldeneye mission is called "Surface 2". a snowfield thoroughly shrouded in a disturbing red fog. it's like a bad omen swept over Surface 1 (an earlier level)'s bright snowy fields. there are more security cameras planted on buildings that and lots of enemies will wander in and out from your view, but both the fog and the N64 limitations make it difficult to make either of these things out until you're really close to them. even the indoors are shrouded in this dark fog. inside a big satellite building (still seemingly shrouded in the same red fog) where you previously had to shut down a satellite dish in Surface 1, you now have to blow it up. hitting B will just cause you to activate it, failing the mission. no remorse. just a big feeling of evil.

or Statue - a graveyard of abstract geometry filled with smudgy greys and brownish greens, and shapes you only half-make out, and sometimes unwittingly get stuck on. the actual design of the map is linear and feels too long for what it is, especially when there are plenty of places to get lost in which becomes especially infuriating as you have to run back through with a time limit and shotgun guards are flooding in. it's like a disturbing train ride into a deep and dark part of James Bond's past. looking back there's something bizarrely beautiful and singular about it.

both of these missions precede your character getting captured and held prisoner in the next mission. it's as if these missions exist as a dark omen clouding over the rest of your story.

the closest parallel in Perfect Dark is the "Chicago" mission (Zolani also acknowledges this as well in his video on the level). you're in a Blade Runner-esque perpetually raining neon cityscape at night, except it's only a block of a cityscape. and you can't even enter any of the buildings (except as an Easter egg), they're just a weird-looking backdrop. as a piece of grand ambitious realism this mission fails. but somehow the little world in it also feels a lot more robust and dangerous than other missions in PD. FBI spies that will report you that look nearly identical to civilians you're not supposed to kill, which almost seem to outnumber the actual guards in the level. also there's a security drone wandering up and down the block that somehow knows who you and you alone are and will start shooting with lasers and shout "STOP WHERE YOU ARE" in a scary robot voice when it sees you. when trying to remember details of mission, the robot felt like such a strange part that i thought i must have made it up completely.

the mission objectives also don't seem to make much sense and force you in uncomfortable and awkward positions, like a taxi you have to scan for several seconds to create a diversion that happens to be right in the street where the robot patrols. but because of all the elements at play there, there's a palpable feeling of tension to the mission. because the environment is small you can visualize it and develop strategies for how to deal with it. the feeling of anxiety and lack of control you experience feels very intentional and fitting for a futuristic dystopia, not arbitrary like other missions.

and i mean, i can still think to the aforementioned hallways of Area 51 which kind of have a lost, forlorn feel to them even as they're populated by guards or annoying drone guns. or the aforementioned final Skedar mission, which is highly linear but has a much stronger and more unique sense of place clearly constructed to work within the limitations of N64 hardware than anything else in the game - and also features very tense fights with the Skedar aliens. their different anatomy and behavior make for a much more entertaining enemy to fight than the same old meatwall guards. these environments work when they work in tandem with, and not against, other elements of the game.

contrast that with a mission like Air Force One, which is filled with awkward hallways, triggered story events and empty dead-end rooms. the level certainly looks a lot more like the actual Air Force One might look like, but not really to its benefit. or the Pelagic II, which is just a series of pretty but boring hallways. or the even more generic green alien hallways of Deep Sea. or even the Carrington Villa, which might be a fun place to explore if the game ever let you and meaningfully interact with anything else in the environment aside from shooting guards. the game often seems afraid of its abstraction, desperately grabbing for more detail and gravitas to lift it out of its abstract, formless shell. it has to be a shooter, it has to try and justify itself to you, it has to be taken seriously. it's an awkward adolescent, trying to do so much more without understanding what made it work in the first place.

mostly (and rather unsurprisingly) Perfect Dark just feels like a combination of half-realized ideas with mixed levels of execution made within the genre limitations of a FPS game made in the late 90's. it's sad, but beyond that, i don't know if there's really anything else to say about it

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Goldeneye was regarded by its development team as a crappy licensed game until its surprise success. by contrast, Perfect Dark was hyper-ambitious, hyper-resourced, hyper-followed by eager fans.

around 2007 i remember sadly peering through the glass case in a corner at my local videogame store that contained the N64 cartridges. there was something sterile and empty feeling about all of them. all the life and possibility that sparked within me from seeing N64 games when they were new seemed all but left behind, only their husks remaining, like little ghosts. still, i remember seeing Mario 64 sitting gleaming at the top of the pile, or an occasional copy of the original Super Smash Bros that would usually quickly disappear. and then there were the multiple copies of Perfect Dark sitting at the bottom, all labeled for 5 dollars. it was almost eerie.

i spent a whole summer with Perfect Dark back in 2000 when i was young, and a whole year prior to its release on Perfect Dark forums feverishly checking for any new info about the game that i could. it seemed like something i could get really lost in. it was the newest, greatest, biggest experience. but now all that content, all that time and energy, all that had built up to the release, was now sitting at the bottom of the shelf in its plastic grey shell for 5 dollars. the newest and greatest never seems to be as new or great the second time around. that bloated, awkward monster of compromises made just for us - the fans, now looks like nothing more than a little glimmer of the past. but now the fans are elsewhere. they've moved far, far beyond it. and meanwhile those grey shells are still somewhere at the bottom of the pile, collecting dust, sitting next to Madden 98, or Ridge Racer, or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, or any number of other husks of disposable grey plastic that look just like it - all neatly sealed-off and lined up in a row, as if they were gravestones.


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Embracing the New Flesh

(this is a heavily revised version of a talk given in the "Influences" session at Indiecade 2014. spoiler alert for the plot of Videodrome)


there's a tendency that i keep sensing popping its head up indie games that i call the "boy genius syndrome". it's about being the first to carve out and colonize a new idea space in the digital world. it often takes the form of being really hung up on a particular type of easy-to-convey technological innovation. it's about willingly reducing your ideas to one easily-sellable hook in order to get further and brand yourself as an innovator. it's, of course, an extension of larger patriarchal values - but in this case specifically tech culture's values.

i think this works particularly well because the standards are still so collectively low as far as interesting or unconventional approaches go towards games, that anything that stands out as at all strong in the field gets amplified by those participating on the more progressive end of the culture as this new great thing - BUT ONLY as long as it's relatively easy to communicate what it's all about. then, simply knowing about it and being associated with it becomes a form cultural currency that also increases your status in the culture. the boy genius projects an image of power and knowledge that makes him attractive to be around.

maybe not so surprisingly, this means a harder path for a lot of games that are aiming for more nuanced, or harder to interpret, or convey experiences. this expression, and these fights people in the progressive game sphere are waging against a dominant culture defined by intense conservatism become seen as a novelty, almost a sideshow. work is made to embody one idea only. our expression is always being re-framed by outside cultural forces that are trying to make sense of our work and file it into an easily understandable category. articles about games, in the end, still garner much less traffic and general interest than other cultural phenomena. serious discussion that happens in the videogame sphere is largely disregarded as niche and unimportant in broader cultural conversations - much to the frustration, by the way, of those of us who do see games' ubiquity and value. and so, in the absence of larger serious cultural attention, the boy genius rules as king.

the boy genius thrives from identification (either feigned or genuine) with the norm of videogames as lower culture and sees himself as selling back the most beautiful parts of it to his new, tech-savvy world. the boy genius does not challenge the idea that games are overwhelmingly a culture built from corporate ideology that has manufactured and heavily pushed this idea of "gamer" and "game culture" as active ways of entrenching themselves in the market. the boy genius merely tries to carve out a space in this market, to get another piece of that pie. the boy genius may try to resurrect what are now considered anomalies of the medium's past that don't fit this gamer culture, particularly old PC games or physical games, but only in order to "rediscover" and rebrand them for the present culture. this, in itself, is not bad - except that in the end, the boy genius does not seek to challenge, but merely seeks ways to repeat to us what we already know in different, newer forms.




in the movie Videodrome, an eyeglass corporation that serves as a front for an arms manufacturer for NATO creates a weapon which takes the form of video of an extreme BDSM porn - dubbed "videodrome". the extreme sexualized violence depicted in the film causes deep bodily effects on the person exposed to it, like a brain tumor, and also heavy delusions and hallucinations - eventually re-wiring their body by forcing it, quite literally, to take out their will, and then killing them. the subject in the film they expose it to, under the guise of a pirate transmission, is Max Renn (played by James Woods), the owner of a seedy tv channel, who the corporation is targeting to get him to show it on his network and broadcast it to the kind of seedy people who watch his channel and get them all to carry out their bidding.

Brian O'Blivion, a prominent academic researcher, fought to create a counter-attack to videodrome before succumbing to the tumor he gained from being exposed to it. his counter-attack was to embrace the form of videos and reframe it as a new extension of our own flesh, as a way of communicating the dangers of videodrome, in making thousands of videos, oftentimes many a day. towards the end of the movie, when Max finds out that he has been exposed to videodrome, he is ordered by Barry Convex, the president of the arms manufacturer that makes videodrome, with taking out Brian's daughter Bianca. Barry orders Max to do this by quite literally inserting a fleshy videotape into a slit that has formed in Max's stomach. Max also is given a flesh gun from inside his stomach that fuses permanently with his hand. he uses this to, not under his own control, kill the heads of his network. Max then tries to kill Bianca but she understands deeply how videodrome works and manages to catch him before he does and reprogram him, again by pulling out the old videotape from his stomach and inserting a new one. he repeats this new phrase dictated by her: "I am the video word made flesh. death to videodrome. long live the new flesh."

this "new flesh" is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies - and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don't, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.




this is a very real and very intense battleground happening right now, in 2014, and i think it might be most easily illustrated by gamergate.

just compare the extreme violence of videodrome's BDSM porn to a hyper-violent FPS - the violence serves as particularly strong and powerful physical current for ideological indoctrination from larger forces to enlist their ultimately disposable subjects. and so we have disillusioned, small-time males pushed into carrying out acts of violence against counter-contingents which represent the most serious opposition against all this ideology - in the case of games, usually women.

i don't think we understand just how powerful videogames are- but the military does. the military and arms manufactures relationship with the triple-A industry has been increasingly documented. the tactile bodily effects and feedback of games make them a particularly effective indoctrination tool. even in tech, Facebook understands the power of a new technology like VR when they bought Oculus Rift and that it benefits them to be in control of technology so powerful.

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we're often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we're following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it's a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.



i'll do another one for you. i used to hate Stanley Kubrick's movies. i hated The Shining. i thought it was really cold, and alien, and manipulative. it all seemed like to come from this really cynical masculine perspective. i felt upset and used after watching the movie, and i didn't know why. it was very painful for me.

then after reading some deeper analysis, i started to see a voice come out of that movie. the things i had originally observed, instead of misreadings that went against against the surface narrative of the film like i had originally assumed, were actually intended readings. that source of pain became a window into something deeper. it lingered much more than any other films which went for shock value that i saw. and then i saw that it has a philosophy, it functions as a critique of ideology - just like Videodrome. Jack, the father, is never ever meant to be anything less than terrifying in the film, in contrast to the book. the film is a punishing critique of, among other things, the nuclear family structure, and white male imperialism. i think i understood this at some intuitive level, but wouldn't have been able to conceptualize that a horror film like this has that level of depth, because it usually never does.

this way of looking at media - with a deeply critical eye, against the grain of the surface narrative, is one that takes most people tremendous effort to learn and recognize as valid. corporate ideology implanted into media forces us to want to identify with our characters as a way of building a strong (but pre-defined) relationship with them in order to help us feel better about ourselves. getting past the role of media to help you feel better about yourself, and understanding that a piece of media is much more effective when looked at with an intensely critical eye, is tremendously painful to do. we see our natural state as one without ideology, and thus stuff that upends our natural state is seen as ideological. misogynistic gamers see feminism or LGBT rights as an ideology being enforced on them, rather than a critique of an ideology they implicitly, unthinkingly accept as valid.

once you are able to see the ideology underlying the need for escape and comfort, it opens you up to everything else. once, as Zizek in The Pervert's Guide To Ideology says of the movie They Live, you put on the sunglasses and see the true ideology underlying everything, you're not able to go back to normal life again. once i really looked at The Shining, the gears started turn in my brain. and i felt my capacity to understand increasing. but this involved confronting and dealing with pain - that involved willingly putting on the sunglasses, unafraid of what i might see through them.

game culture is so thoroughly built around identification with your character avatar that seriously challenging surface reading comes off as a direct antithesis to the conventional wisdom that exists within it. and that's not to say that big budget games haven't tried (and failed) to muddy these waters ala Bioshock Infinite or Spec Ops: The Line. but they failed in part because of a large part of the ideology of corporate game design is that players are never allowed to feel serious pain for more than the shortest period of time. and i don't mean pain to your character avatar, but pain to you, through design ideas which challenge your assumptions or your patience or your perspectives. often people approach games as some sort of sacred escape space defined by a complete lack of ideology. the almost spiritual, religious fervor that gamers approach games with makes it an excellent breeding ground for intense ideological indoctrination. this isn't rigidly and aggressively applied, but one that is seen as natural and normal state of games to occupy. but that level of deep, almost spiritual comfort games provide make it even easier to actively ignore how strongly constructed that idea of 'enjoyment' is in the first place. it also makes that much harder to wage any kind of serious, sustained counter-current against it.

while most media tends to flatten and flop on the ground upon further analysis, films like Videodrome or The Shining continue to just unfold like an infinitely-layered flower and have a life far after their making. and that's because The Shining or Videodrome embrace their form. they embrace the plasticity of it. they love their images, and their symbols. they love every detail and shot composition. they know their experiences are transparently not real in the pure factual sense (whatever that means, really), that therefore makes them much more real than equally-constructed depictions of "realism" in media, particularly in serious television of the last ten years. they instead, embrace the ideology of media. they embrace the new flesh. "death to videodrome!" they knowingly assert.



so does David Lynch. this simple but effective image is from his film Inland Empire. both the color red and lamps are continually used throughout his work - in this case the red lamp stands like an oracle that shines light into a violent memory. broken down into a series of fundamental symbols and constructions, his work re-examines deeply troubled psychological landscapes; and the deeper, more fundamental forces that flow through all things and communicate much more about who we and how we operate are at a much deeper and more intuitive level. his films, like Kubrick's and Cronenberg's, embrace a highly fabricated world as a channel to something deeper.

the point being that this realm of innovation for innovations sake, of the boy genius, ultimately aims for further entrenchment into existing ideologies. if we hope to win this war, we need to jump out of that realm and into the one of a spiritual healer or oracle. we need to jump out of the brain and into the body, to the larger picture. we need to not be afraid to feel pain. we need to look at media with a more critical, but also empathetic eye. we need to put on the sunglasses and not be afraid of what we might see through them.

because when we don't - not only is the end result co-option and re-entrenchment, but the end result is violence against those who openly resist this ideology, both in the metaphorical and literal sense - because the end result of adopting patriarchal and colonialist worldviews is always violence acted out on the bodies of the marginalized and powerless.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On 'Gamers' And Identity

(this is, in part, a continuation of my "on right-wing videogame extremism" post from a couple weeks ago)

when i was in sixth grade, shortly after the Columbine shooting happened, i remember having a strange conversation with my mom. after seeing a report on TV, i said something like "i just don't understand why these school shootings...." before awkwardly trailing off, unsure what i was trying to say. she asked, completing my thought "you don't understand why they happen so often?" i paused briefly, thinking, and then replied "no, i don't understand why they don't happen all the time."

disillusionment was an everyday reality in rural Ohio, where i grew up. i felt it as a tremendously overwhelming truth, a constant feeling of being trapped in an infinite sea of identical houses, churches, fast food. this sea was constantly breeding fear and paranoia, and the communities that did exist here all seemed to be religious and usually relied on making members of their community feel terrible as possible. i didn't want to have anything to do with them. but there was a thing for someone like me, who wasn't very into Christianity and didn't feel very connected to her body and didn't want to damage it through drug use. you could easily find some connection to other people in the area through media and, in particular, videogames. i remember my deep, knowing nod when a friend's coworker at a bar in Ohio simply responded with "Mario 3" after i told him i liked videogames. it was this great universal truth i immediately understood. even in the biggest cultural wastelands, geek culture seems to flourish somewhere - through Magic: The Gathering tournaments or local game stores, even sometimes at places like Walmart. when there is nothing else to base your identity on or invest creative energy in, things like videogames easily become your life. they're a drug, the thing that keeps you going, feeling free, feeling connected to people, and feeling like you're someone.

being a "gamer" becomes your identity.

"'gamers' are over" is a sentiment i've seen circulated around a lot in the past week or so in response to the horrible misogyny and threats that have come out of this whole #gamergate thing, but i think it might just be talking around the heart of this issue. i don't blame anyone in the press or game devs for feeling unsafe, feeling angry and losing their patience, even quitting games. but the constant harping on gamers as 'entitled manbabies' (while perhaps true in one way) is just using the same old lazy language employed against games in popular culture and misses out a lot of the dynamics that are actually going on here. (not to mention calling them insane or deluded or deranged uses the same sort of tactics the harassers use on women). the disillusionment people on the gamergate hashtag people feel is real - one borne out of the industry's bloat and creative stagnancy, the sudden turns towards social consciousness in the media, a loss of a feeling of greater 'consensus' in game culture because of the splintering of media and, especially, feelings of inaccessibility into spaces that are now influencing game culture at large.

Cameron Kunzelman's frustrated conclusion after engaging with a #gamergate tweeter is telling: "It seems to me that the participants in #gamergate are all there for different reasons and that it is mostly an accidental coalition that has formed out of a sense of being wronged." the aforementioned long, rambling conversation between him and #gamergate tweeter Adam Haux which was mostly about game reviews, ended in this exchange:

many of us connected to games see many details #gamergaters have espoused about the connections between game journalists and game devs as comical (because of how little they understand how much everyone is actually connected), random, or arbitrary. this well-circulated graphic linked by Gameranx editor Ian Miles Cheong (supposedly from 4chan), for example, lists SJW (social justice warrior) game journalists to boycott. the reasoning behind this list seems arbitrary and to only have a surface awareness of what's happening, as there are women writers who have written socially-themed articles for those websites that are not included, whereas some other people on there might have never written any socially-themed articles for said websites at all, or have poor reputations for it (ala Ben Kuchera).

in this one (via Leigh Alexander, apparently taken from a #gamergate tweeter though i can't find the original source), people in the games press are linked together, often with barely tangential, small threads. some of the information on here is probably not true. i, for one, do not fund Jenn Frank on Patreon (but i might start!).


at heart of this mapping, however arbitrary, there is the idea that a group of people they have no real access to or influence with is changing videogame culture. this is, in fact, exactly what is happening. they may be ignoring the obvious, ever-present problems that continue to plague videogame culture and culture at large, like (male) friends hiring or awarding (other male) friends. or the persistent problems of inaccessibility and exclusion in indie game circles i've talked about in previous articles. or, even more present, the game industry's buying out of the press which has been a documented controversy for years (which Lana Polansky talks about in her recent piece on payola), most notably embodied in the Kane And Lynch review scandal from 2007, or how way the "Doritogate" controversy brought to light the "tragic, vuglar image" of game journalist's relationship with game companies of two years ago. these are real issues that have been affecting the industry for a long time, but they're not ones that this group seems to pay much attention to or care about.

instead, they're choosing to focus on deeply misogynistic conspiracy narratives of lone manipulative women or queer people using their sexual prowess to manipulate and define who gets recognition or awards. and these narratives are made even more bizarre with their intersections to much deeper and more pervasive conflicts of interest that veer hard right, seemingly for no logical reason, towards deep misogyny. many of these people, like the guy who made the above video, might be frustrated gamers rushing to take advantage of this whole controversy while it's still in the cultural consciousness and find an audience for themselves. women and LGBT people are the already strongly established outside interlopers to their culture, and slut-shaming and victim blaming are deeply ingrained past-times in the language of pop culture. so the sudden presence in the media is taken as the most obvious explanation.

however, as writer Daniel Joseph suggests in a tumblr post from over a year ago, there are other, more basic social tensions happening in all of this conflict:

"...videogames have become one of those 'spheres' that was supposed to separated from 'real life', which explains, once again, why 'gam3rz' are so virulent in their defense of sexism, separate spheres, border patrolling, racism etc. It’s that 'private sphere' that they shared with others which was conceived as their private garden, their summer cottage...

...The bourgeois class created the private because it had the resources to manufacture a world distinct from the aristocracy and the monarchy while the previous classes, farmers and serfs had no concept of the private. Think about how brands are supposed to be private - they are families you bring into your kingdom because they are lifestyles and ideas and whatnot embodied as subjects - even if those subjects are just commodities. Brands, rather than products, become citizens of sorts and are represented by their various manifestations in your private kingdom. 

...Remember, this separate sphere is all we have outside of work itself. It’s this private sphere that is supposed to lend true meaning to our lives - not our shitty job that we grudgingly wake up for every day. This is where shit matters and as it happens when things are under your care you give a lot of damns when something appears to attack them.

So what comes out isn’t so much entirely about a hatred of women (though much of it is) but also about the reaction against the drive of a more communal impulse to challenge that hegemony of the private sphere. To move against bourgeois values means to attack, in one sense, that autonomous sphere of production and reproduction of the monarchy of the home. It means to rip that tiny sphere of sovereignty that so many people, robbed of any other space of control in their lives through rampant capital accumulation, have. It also shows how the economic movements of our world come around and viciously react against things they seem so far away from."

in other words, #gamergate-rs are afraid that new progressive communal challenges to the one small private sphere of the home they've been socially permitted to exercise control over and feel freedom within will cause them to be erased. as such, "'gamers' are over" may sound more like a declaration of war to them than anything else. 

let's be honest - the industry has failed "gamers" because our culture has failed them. for me, being in a place like rural Ohio was so tremendously unempowering, and made me feel so much like i was so far from being able to ever influence the larger culture that i felt like i at least deserved the videogames everyone else i grew up around seemed to get to cope with all of it. that feeling, like you're "owed" media, is the default response of our culture to not being able to exercise any kind of other real autonomy or control over any other aspects of your life. critical personalities who cynically evaluate media from entitled perspectives like Yahtzee Croshaw or TotalBiscuit or JonTron, therefore, speak tremendously to these sense of values and shared culture. other popular media constantly reinforces and echoes these ideas until they become a phenomenon, a consensus, a way of looking at your existence, and when pushed, a venue of life and death.

i'm worried, as always, venturing into writing about this subject again. the problem is that those private gardens of videogames are no longer merely private gardens, but real, tangible territory with real causalities - where real harassment, doxxing, hacking, and violence happens. fantasizing about committing acts of violence on the people who you perceive to be the architects of your misery is one of our grotesque cultural pastimes, one that the culture of aggressively-masculine marketing around videogames has certainly only just added fuel of the fire of - one that's constantly enacted on the beings and bodies of the weak and marginalized.

and yes, i remember how ridiculous the rhetoric about violence in videogames around an event like Columbine was to me as a sixth grader, how they don't understand how abstracted and silly the violence in a game like Doom was, how it was all simulated, how little of a basic understanding they had of how games work. but as those debates have largely dissipated over the years, videogames have only become more violent, have only ventured much further into simulated realism meant to more convincingly substitute for a disappointing and disempowering reality, have only catered much more deeply and pervasively to the entitlements of their users, and have only become more ingrained and ever-present in culture. where we stand now, videogames have deeply entrenched themselves as the primary venue for disempowered people to elect themselves as servants and act out the sociopathic fantasies of the ruling class. videogames literally train soldiers. if you feel disillusioned, if you feel not particularly smart or skilled, videogames are there. no surprise, then, that this learned rhetoric is further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and creating a battleground in such a seemingly arbitrary part of popular media. no surprise that this battleground is very real.

the problem is these violent impulses are self-destructive at their core. they're not actions of autonomous actors, they're culturally programmed. they're the impulses of a suicide bomber throwing himself into a crowd of people. they're deeply emotional, deeply disconnected, and deeply afraid of what's happening in the world - and that's what makes them scary, and very real. and that's why we need to see them for what they are - fear, and understand how and why they're deeply intertwined with our culture.

if we want this stuff to go away and stop being a problem, in whatever form it takes, then we need to be able to map the source of it, to provide context, and to understand that at some fundamental level we're all in this together.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism

exhausted by hearing reports from people i'm acquaintances with of being harassed, their accounts hacked, personal info spread, phone numbers called, front doors showed up at (in one case) by random MRAs (Men's Rights Activists), 4channers, Redditors or whoever the fuck it is, i decided yesterday to finally look on 4chan for more insight what is actually going on. i share the fear with a lot of other women who work in the realm of games but have less exposure of what will inevitably happen from getting more exposure. a lot of us look to someone like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian and the image of more cultural visibility is not exactly very appealing. living with no privacy is not appealing. living in fear for your personal safety all the time for doing what you want to do is not appealing. i have my whole life ahead of me. i'm still working through tons of issues with depression and anxiety. i don't want that to be ruined by a few people who can't get a fucking life and leave me alone. these couple tweets by game writers Lana Polansky and Patricia Hernandez pretty much sum it up:



just this evening, one or numerous people who presumably were going after Zoe have begun to target several indies who are her friends or acquaintances. and now several indies and anyone tangentially involved in the scene are are scrambling to two-factor authenticate their accounts, change passwords, and lock their twitters. there's a feeling that there's been a war declared on indies, especially social-justice focused ones, and a lot of people are afraid. at the time of writing, a twitter hashtag - #welovegamedevs, has recently just showed up in response to all of this. 

in a recent 4chan thread on /v/ (which was deleted), a picture of Phil Fish's homepage claiming to have been hacked by "a leader of Anonymous and head moderator of /v/" posted his bank account info and phone number and, among other things, said he was targeting other SJW (Social Justice Warrirors) and indie devs. the thread was filled with commenters proclaiming that Phil Fish must have been so desperate that he had faked it all himself, and that it could never be anyone from /v/ because there's no such thing as a head moderator there. i guess the possibility of someone intentionally writing inaccuracies as an inside joke and/or to convince more people on 4chan that it was faked didn't occur to them. the level of victim-blaming was pretty astounding to me to see - ESPECIALLY given that his personal bank account info was shared on the page. many posters seem desperate to take the blame away from 4chan and their complicity, all while still seeing no irony in their readily sharing of doxxed info. i guess even they didn't want to believe that people among their ranks were actually doing these things, because they knew it would only hurt what they see as their "cause".

so what exactly is their cause? from reading through several of the threads, it's not entirely easy to tell. 4chan is an intensely attention-deficit subworld that is known mostly for chaos with little accountability or sustained serious discussion. that's presumably its primary draw for a lot of people in the community. nonetheless, the best summary i got was from these two posts (click to enlarge):



the source of this latest, greatest internet shitstorm seems to all stem from a bitter, narcissistic, hyper-detailed tumblr post from an ex, Eron Gjoni, of Zoe's (search for "the Zoe post" if you really want to know, but you probably don't) which lays out in minute detail their relationship and posits that she slept with several different game journalists and game festival people for favorable coverage while in a relationship with him. regardless of what whether Zoe did was ethical or not, the post indifferently shares a frightening level of private details about their relationship and private IM and facebook conversations between him and Zoe, presenting it as "evidence". 

this post spawned several youtube videos invoking her sleeping around for favorable coverage as some kind of indie game/game journalism conspiracy, like this one (which to this date has 500,000+ views on youtube and a very good likes to dislikes ratio). John Brindle breaks down the twisted methodology of this video and others like it far better than i could in detail here (click to enlarge):


the full storify of his tweets is here. the most striking thing to me, beyond the bizarre level of arbitrary detail their relationship is documented in Gjoni's post (e.g. "I had my first panic attack Apr. 29th"), is that he uses the language of games and rules sets to intensely analyze the potential outcomes of situations he felt he was put in in their relationship. as John Brindle observed, the talk of puzzle pieces and investigation seem like some perverted version of the protagonist in the popular game Braid. they also recall the kind of universal strategies and "truths" about the opposite sex developed and disseminated by pick-up artists, but in a way they originate in game language - and game culture, in how games disembody and dehumanize subjects. 

unsurprising, then, that these gamers seem to have no problem taking the side of a bitter ex that seems, in no uncertain terms, set out to destroy her and bring as much harassment her way as possible (as it is now doing).

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so i'll admit - when i first heard about Depression Quest, i had a pretty mixed reaction. i was glad to see a more visible game examining serious issues that come with a thing like depression, and i knew enough about Zoe to know that she'd been sincerely and openly struggling with it. she has, in fact, claimed that making the game saved her life. but i was also skeptical because i felt like it was taking some of the more abstract themes of lots of personal Twine games that were being made around the time and branding them in a more universal, surface, mainstream way. "depression" is such a broad cultural concept that originates from any number of sources - the idea that it remains this inherently abstract, alien idea that must be navigated through and corrected doesn't let us deeper into the very real sources it usually stems from. the fact is, depression is unfortunately a pretty normalized way of life. we live in a world that heavily encourages people towards developing intense anxiety and mental illness. and so i felt like other games had looked more into the source of these issues from more interesting angles, but weren't being recognized by the culture because they weren't so aggressively marketed.

regardless of my misgivings, any situations that have since developed around this game have digressed so far beyond any of the game's original intentions and shortcomings and into a strange, terrifying sort of cultural battleground. something about Zoe in particular - maybe that her game was all of a sudden ubiquitous, maybe that she was a woman who openly and unapologetically shared her image online, maybe that she seemed to be everywhere, triggered the killswitch in the greater consciousness of this reactionary gamer contingent. and as such, Zoe has become the scapegoat for every bit of internalized misogyny and misdirected rage these people felt. she appears to them an amorphous assemblage of everything that is viewed as wrong with women - manipulativeness, sluttiness, being an 'attention-whore'. the idea of trusting the word of a frighteningly narcissistic ex who's out to ruin her reputation is fine with them, because it meshes with their worldview. suddenly they have a convenient situation that explains away all their disillusionment and misgivings with themselves and game culture. suddenly it's about all game culture at large and ethics in game journalism, as in this post:


that's not to say that there aren't some grains of truth in these criticisms. the indie scene is often cliquish and entitled. it does benefit you tremendously to know the right people, and there is a lot of incestuousness and possible conflicts of interest that come into play with game spaces, so it's not a huge stretch to make that criticism. but focusing on a boogeyman of this seemingly formless, evil master manipulator woman who uses any tools to her advantage to gain positive press and reviews (which, btw, never materialized in at least one case - Nathan Grayson, a Kotaku writer she allegedly slept with, never wrote a review of Depression Quest) says a whole lot more about fear of women than it does say anything about any of the (numerous) problems in game journalism and the indie scene. nevermind that so much industry coverage, even from their beloved youtubers, functions as glorified PR. the fact is, most game journalism is already tremendously confused and broken, and at a much bigger and more fundamental level that these people think this Zoe Quinn "scandal" is.

for one, my big criticism of this new indie culture - that it's an extension of tech culture and is ultimately product-driven despite it often grasping for another image, that it's not nearly as open to new people or new ideas as it wants to believe it is, that a lot of the interesting things that are going on in independent games (like a lot of free games by people like increpare and stuff on gamejolt or warpdoor or forest ambassador, for example) are not really recognized as part of the "scene" or given much of any coverage from mainstream outlets, that writers who do focus on devoting their time to looking at more interesting aspects are constantly marginalized and ignored inside and outside the scene, that a lot of what comes out of the visible indie scene just reflects the same triple-A, game industry values despite people purporting to be more progressive/feminist/whatever, is totally absent from these criticisms. these people don't really care about lack of recognition or coverage for interesting new games made by outsiders. they care about getting back this abstract, indefinable feeling of a shared culture created and fostered by corporate media that seems to have been lost to them. they are tremendously scared and frightened people. ironically given what they say about their targets as whiny and overemotional, they are far more irrational and overly emotional in their responses. they care only about acting out on their numerous emotional triggers in whatever way possible, and using whatever tools they can. they are tremendously paranoid.


one of the biggest sources of paranoia i took from reading through my first 4chan thread about this issue is that social justice activism will inevitably destroy communities like 4chan. these people feel so disempowered in their lives that they head to communities like 4chan or reddit to be able to feel some sort of empowerment, to act out on something, to feel part of something bigger. this is where the whole mythos of Anonymous comes from. that a lone person with a computer has a tremendous power to take down the shadowy elite. but in that act, there's no accountability, and no moral code. anyone with the resources can mobilize people to target anyone they see fit. sometimes it attacks against the interests of power, but just as often it's a conservative, reactionary anger that comes out of disillusionment and fear, and gets constantly externalized onto marginalized people, especially women and queer people. 

they struggle to understand and adjust to a rapidly shifting cultural landscape, in and out of games, that's moving away from traditionally catering to them and their empathy-deficient values into something more culturally sensitive and aware. and so they find simple explanations for these complex phenomena that fit within their bigoted worldviews - boogeymans of evil, manipulative and misleading women like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarskeesian. they view themselves as anti-authority and anti-power, even as their actions are tremendously conservative and tremendously serving of the interests of power. they view social justice activism (and indie games) as a product of the rich, elitist, and entitled who is using their agenda to infiltrate into major media outlets and ignore the common gamer market as an audience. they look to "normal guy" personalities like JonTron or Totalbiscuit, or Penny Arcade - who don't serve any kind of larger journalistic ethics aside from "being funny" - to reflect their perceived values and lifestyles. they employ the same logic that you see applied against LGBT and marginalized people that leaders in power in places like Iran or Russia do - social justice is a realm of Western entitlement and indulgences that are actively destroying the ways of lives of average, common people. they continually assert that these social justice issues don't matter compared to large political or global conflicts, and use it to justify their behavior. because social justice is the not a "real" realm, but one of the entitled babies who don't care about global issues, their bullying is justified and will come to no real consequence in the end. the internet is, then, a playground for them to angrily act out their own paranoia and insecurities onto.

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traditionally they've been right on that last point. i think what we are seeing now, though, is that the actions of this conservative extremist contingent finally is coming to a larger consequence. social justice issues certainly aren't going away in game or media spaces, and the amount of hateful material received by industry people all across the board are getting more and more attention in the larger media sphere. this event, in its extremity, might be crucial in bringing it into an even larger consciousness. 

this all seems, in a way, to be a last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress. it's an intensely self destructive act - it's as if they know they've lost in the end, so they're trying to take down anyone they can with them. and all i can really do, in the end, is just feel sorry for them.