Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Beginner's Guide and Videogame Criticism's Awkward Baby Steps

(obvious spoiler warning)

i didn't want to write about The Beginner's Guide, at least not publicly. while i don't know its creator Davey Wreden extremely well, i have talked to him a bit over the past several years about various life things and generally appreciate his openness with the struggles of being thrust into the realm of indie game celebrity from the success of his previous game The Stanley Parable when he was not at all psychologically prepared for it. in a scene which often privileges social currency above all else, and is filled with many friendships based mostly on utility, it was refreshing to see someone who's in the center of all of this open up about it, at least to some degree. i intended to email him my thoughts on this game because i talked to him about it at GDC last year and i thought that might be better to show my appreciation privately than posting something which may or may not be interpreted as scoring points off him or his work (like pretty much all criticism in the game world these days is or could be misinterpreted by people out there as doing). but then i also think about how i'm maybe affording him a lot of empathy i'm not affording myself enough of, especially now that the game is out there and launched much critical discussion.

while observing the game criticism sphere blow up with thinkpieces on the game a few months ago, i was pretty content to not join, even to respond to Ben Gabriel's piece which referenced many of those pieces while bringing up a parallel between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide i hadn't considered while playing it. Gabriel says:

The most obvious connection between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide is that the former is "a game about prisons, both real and imaginary" (the creator's description) while The Beginner's Guide is a game about a designer who makes games about prisons (at least some of the time) that are aggressively interpreted at the player as both real and imaginary.

i'm not interested in simply parroting an argument which states my game (Problem Attic) did a better job of conveying certain ideas than Davey's did, but i have to admit this parallel was amusing to me. when our fictionalized narrator version of Davey in The Beginner's Guide says he completely lost track of his fictionalized game-developer friend coda, in coda's very last game Davey presents to us towards the end of Beginner's Guide - an impenetrable, cold, dark, gigantic geometric structure - i thought for the first time that this was something that i might actually want to make. while the Davey of the narration said he felt more alienated than ever, i started to feel for the first time like i got a sense of who coda actually was. for me it hinted at a deeper truth not really observed in the game itself, acknowledging something that Davey was very afraid of. while Davey said he never understood why coda liked to make games about prisons, that topic is something i'm very fascinated with. this allowed me to easily put myself into coda's place.

but it's important here to note that both characters in The Beginner's Guide are easy to project yourself onto (as many out there have done). i also saw myself as much in Davey at times as i did in coda. i have both felt largely misunderstood by a lot of well-meaning but ultimately self-serving people as i have tried so hard to advocate for others' work that i've made it so much more about myself than anything they ever might have wanted me to do for them. both coda and Davey are archetypes -  Davey might be seen to embody a privileged white cis male who is used to seeing his perspective echoed in everything and coda a person without much of this privilege who is trying to challenge the notions Davey builds his foundations on - just as much as they might represent actual people. and so many out there seem to have missed this very basic point.

The Beginner's Guide is a deeply personal game, and the kind of personal distress it captures makes it also seem disinterested in having easy conclusions be made about it. Laura Hudson calls it "a game that doesn't want to be written about". Both Heather Alexandria and Chris Franklin talk in their videos about their difficulty plunging into the nuances of The Beginner's Guide's narrative. carrying on nuanced conversations about a piece of work has been a thorn in the paw of game criticism for years and its extremely rare for something so multi-faceted to have the visibility The Beginner's Guide has had. perhaps this might also explain why one prominent game writer sincerely suggested coda was literally a real person Davey was stealing work from and selling - this writer is part of a larger group of games writers who have not ever been forced to read or consider art beyond its stated intentions before. The Beginner's Guide forces this process on its audience, many of whom are dealing with it for the first time, and for that i appreciate it.

the obvious mistake the Davey of the Beginner's Guide makes, in the game's fated twist, is to try to read a human being's life into a work when he's much better served reading what that work might be trying to communicate more abstractly. in a larger sense, it's also about his failure to see outside his own perspective and bubble of privilege. it's important to note that this doesn't make the kind of analysis he's trying to embark upon completely useless, however, just grossly misinformed in the way he's embarking upon it. Heather Alexandra, in her video, suggests that coda's mod of a Counterstrike map Davey presents to us at the very beginning of the game has no significance as a space and that narrator Davey is stretching by trying to find meaning in it when there's obviously nothing there to comment on. this, i think, is also misinformed - you can look at the space and see the subtle changes made to its Counterstrike shell as an attempt to de-familiarize one with an environment so overly familiar to its audience it's taken for granted. that is the point of public art installations, for example. art still needs interpreters - to disseminate it, to help it be recognized - but not nearly as much as the interpreters need art - often to legitimize themselves as people, their identities, their practice, and their careers. still, Davey's impulse to interpret and explain coda's work is probably a sincere one, even if it's coming from a bad place. while his obsession with the person behind the work dramatizes the grotesque elevation of the individual practiced by Western culture, as celebrity or mystical object or scapegoat - one that is especially relevant in videogames post-Indie Game: The Movie, it's still not altogether completely useless. while critics like Chris Franklin self-deprecatingly acknowledge this is something they've also done before, we can still at least see this impulse to understand the work as some kind of genuine one (even if misinformed).


this brings me back to Ben Gabriel's assertion: "Everything worth attending to in The Beginner's Guide is handled better in Problem Attic". Gabriel argues that while it's true that you can say the nature of Problem Attic's design pushes its player towards understanding its central narrative themes, it also doesn't matter to say this for anything outside conversations where that kind of approach to game design is seen as a valuable marker of quality (embodied by conversations of the past several years around various kinds of "empathy games").

i think it's a good point to ask - is an experience a game provides interesting enough, in itself, outside of it being 'about' something? videogames, more than any other media, are slippery beasts that seem to perpetually confound and subvert the wills of their interpreters. the more that we fuss on what a work is 'about', the more each nuance of the actual experience tends to slip through our fingertips. but that's also not to discount that it's not possible to talk of what a work may be 'about' or represent in some way - it certainly is. but that conversation should happen in a way that's open to a multitude of different interpretations and lenses, and different experiences and perspectives - which discussion around art so rarely is. we must allow ourselves to be open to all potentially contradictory details of an experience if we can really hope to understand the deeper truths that piece of work might represent - not to try to be the carrier of the One True Reading of a work which comes from a place and context we can never hope to know fully. this is what Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation", which Gabriel invokes, rails against. the One True Realities privileged Davey might need to invent in coda's work to feel good about himself break apart to a level of subjectivity and complexity Davey's not capable of making sense of from his position.

The Beginner's Guide, then, maybe represents the discourse around videogames' first awkward baby steps into the realm of taking on complexities in art. it also could represent the more mainstream videogame culture's first foray in trying to actually make sense of their position of privilege.

while this central theme - of a piece of work confounding and subverting the will of its hapless interpreter - is explored in The Beginner's Guide, there's still something missing here that we don't see. the matter-of-fact presentation of coda's Source engine games hide unsettling realities creeping under the surface. coda's games may or may not purport to be struggling with issues of communication and loneliness, but they only do so mostly via surface signifiers. you wander around hazy islands - the islands represent scattered thoughts and lack of confidence according to Davey. you're on the stage of a crowded theater talking to someone who is too anxious to act - then the game bars you away from that theater, Davey says representing social anxiety. you're on a ship that is about to crash and you have to perform the correct series of actions to not die - representing trying to come down from a panic attack, according to Davey.

we might leave all the misunderstanding and misreading up to Davey's narration - but then if we turn off all the narration, as Gabriel suggests, we can see more clearly that these works are mostly one-dimensional and present their ideas in a fairly conventional and marketable package - through slick, professional-feeling 3D structures and textures with little bits of quirk thrown in and standard WASD first-person movement. these games definitely don't seem like the first experiments of a new game designer, but someone who's been hardened by the craft of a particular sort of design practice attempting to branch out a little bit. these works might be a bit novel but largely don't subvert their package very much, merely embody them as confused and contradictory pieces of art that can never completely escape their Source mod shell. in the end they're maybe not bad but also not terribly unique as experiments in themselves, outside of Davey's framing of them.

and then it becomes important to say - not only might coda not represent a real person, but coda might just be a reflection of Davey himself. specifically the aspect of himself that he may not understand - his own pain that he's crudely trying and failing to represent to the best of abilities. his imagining of coda's Source engine constructs seem to reflect the kind of game culture commentary on games that the real Davey addressed in The Stanley Parable, and the culture of the Source engine mods he came out of, much more than decisions made purely for artistic reasons. even the real Davey seemingly can't escape his own perspective. while all of coda's games are presented in a fairly conventionally-polished package, games like those featured in the catamites' 50 Short Games compilation are much more sketchy, hand-drawn, cartoony, abstract, hard to pin down explicit meaning or intent in. the catamites's games, or increpare's games (which i find the most similar to the kinds of games coda is making) challenge players not just with novel approaches to narrative but also in their presentations and framing. the fact that they work on more dimensions makes them harder to talk about than the works in The Beginner's Guide - they often problematize the centering of the mainstream white cis male voice in games much more explicitly, for example - which just adds to the feeling that we're only seeing a more one-dimensional, neutered, still fundamentally unenlightened presentation of those kind of games here.

a friend suggested to me that is possibly why the game is called The Beginner's Guide - it's a more palatable window into taking on the more difficult (but ultimately more rewarding work) of game designers like increpare. but, if so, the game actively contradicts itself by calling into question its own method of analysis by the end, leaving the player to question how effective any of this really was.

The Beginner's Guide says - i tried to make this thing for you and instead i just used it as an excuse to hurt myself. the Davey in the game recognizes this is all really about him in the end and panics, in much the same way real Davey might have upon receiving the criticism that the fictional works of coda seem to have a lot more to do with him than anyone else he might be advocating for. it shows a level of self-awareness that is unusual and maybe admirable, at least for this sort of game - but still leaves us behind feeling unsatisfied, like we don't really know where we've ended up after all of this. while narrator Davey's analysis is self-serving and one-dimensional, his self-destructive freak out at the end of the game is equally as self-serving and one-dimensional. he's still centering himself in coda's story, assuming coda has come to hate him in a way that may or may not be true but probably doesn't represent the full reality of what's really going on behind the surface. so we're left feeling like there's a story there that's never really told, and we're only ever seeing Davey's side. he freaks out when it comes time to acknowledge his position of privilege and lack of perspective without ever taking us away from his world. his freak out feels like just that - a freak out, one that we're left to do the work pick up the pieces from. it's like we still have to comfort Davey, in a way. the wordless ending after all of this is over maybe suggests a possible escape or transcendence outside the bounds of the level - and Davey's own perspective, perhaps into the realms explored in games like Problem Attic or Corrypt, but it's left only as a fleeting thought for those games to address. Davey is not capable of doing that work himself.

i admire The Beginner's Guide in some ways for existing in the context it does - for inspiring the discussion it has - for implicating (at least in some ways) one-dimensional, self-centered criticism of videogames and art in general - and for being a deeply personal work which honestly exposes the anxieties of its creator. but i have to feel like in the end, Davey's freak out leaves him no closer to understanding what's truly wrong about his perspective - or truth of his privilege - or that real answers Davey seeks are contained much more in the other, more radical works i've mentioned - the increpares, catamites, Nathalie Lawheads, the altgames - the ones the ending perhaps points to, the ones that challenge game culture in the way this game fundamentally doesn't. the ones that most game critics are afraid of taking on and trying to make sense of because in the end they might just dismiss the authors, as Davey does so often with coda, as being "depressed". The Beginner's Guide, like most critics, needs those kinds of games much more than it will ever acknowledge - and far more than those kind of games will ever need it.

(as always, this post was made possible by your support on my Patreon. thank you!)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

an itemized end of the year list

1. i don't care about Undertale. i don't like talking about things just because they're popular.

2. i have accepted that most people don't know, care, or understand how much effort or thought i put into my work. i have accepted my obscurity as an inevitable result of following my own path. in some ways, i'm fine with this. but i'm tired of being walked over and stepped on because i'm so afraid of being an unkind person to anyone. ever since i got into videogames, it feels like everyone wants to step on me, use me, take advantage of me and then throw me away when i'm not useful to them anymore. i don't care if everyone out there hates me, just so long as they know i do what i do for me, because i care about myself and having a positive impact on the world, not them or their expectations. i work harder, am more talented, and care more than almost anyone i know. i'm sorry if that hurts your feelings, but it's true. if you don't like it, prove me wrong.

EDIT: an addendum to this. i said this to someone who was upset by the above statement & this article in general. i hope, if you're interested in reading my work, you will consider trying to take what i said for what it is and not take it as a personal attack on you or other people but enter it in for a little longer and think about what i might be trying to say beyond that. i think that policy is generally a good one when entering into any kind of field of criticism. you'll have to take my word for this, but - i'm not generally interested in making personal attacks on people. there are much broader things at stake here. and if you wanna make me look stupid by me saying the above, then please do.

3. i think i finally know how Kanye feels now.

4. early this year i ended up in a bar in Baltimore after a show my brother took me to. a friend of his partner's, after learning i did videogame-related stuff, repeatedly started drunkenly exclaiming to me: "the indie games... these indie games aren't good enough.... they're not good enough!". i know more and more what she means every day.

5. this was as good of a year for videogames as i can remember

6. it still doesn't matter - videogames ARE not good enough. then i think about the most popular/talked about games of 2015 - A Japanese RPG fan-game with slightly cuter dialogue and slightly less annoying battle system (Undertale), self-indulgent 'games about games' that might be kind of neat in parts but are extremely reflexively insular to game development culture (The Beginner's Guide, The Magic Circle), a tool that may be super accessible but locked away and corporately controlled on hardware most people don't own and at risk of disappearing in a few years (Super Mario Maker), more Metroidvanias (Axiom Verge, Environmental Station Alpha) a slightly better iteration of the same bloated open-world soulless wander-fest that's dominated the industry of the past many years (Fallout 4), PG-rated lesbians in a bottom-tier Netflix miniseries-worthy story about the Pacific Northwest by people who've never been to the Pacific Northwest (Life Is Strange), a 3rd person multiplayer gun shooting game branded to look slightly cuter (Splatoon), a kind of cool FMV game with a daytime soap-level story (Her Story), soccer-but-with cars? (Rocket League). and then --- a game with actually socially relevant themes that everyone in their mother shit-talked because the developer has said mean stuff about videogames (Sunset), and a bunch of experimental games no one played or talked about (Rooftop Cop, Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs, ENOUGH, Strawberry Cubes, etc etc).

7. at first i thought people in games were just ignorant, or that it was just the cis white dudes who did this - but more and more, i think people in games (regardless of who they are) delight in only being interested in talking about games-about-games, they delight in feeling like they're experts and part of a culture, no matter how insular, and they delight in not talking about or exposing themselves to anything that might ever challenge that idea to its core. they delight in "comfort food" to the exclusion of everything else. this blog post, which exclaims "...but sometimes you don’t want The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane. Sometimes you want to huddle up with a bowl of popcorn and watch, I don’t know, Buffy." as if it's some kind of revelatory statement to make about videogames. but there is no Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane in videogame culture. it's ALL Buffy - all of it.

8. the whole "wolf vs. the vampire" dynamic i was talking about in my 21st Century Digital Art Manifesto holds more true than ever. the old world (i.e. traditional labels, publishers, galleries) has to rely on predatorily sucking the blood of new artists, scenes, movements, and technological developments to stay alive and stay relevant. the new world (i.e. social media, internet content-o-sphere) is chaotic and cutthroat and relies on luck & ultra-conformity to survive. what's popular becomes so ultra popular it becomes a cultural meme (i.e. Undertale). what's unpopular (most else) becomes ultra-obscure. virality is the only thing that really matters. the old world has some of this problem too, but it also supports a lot more nuance in its discussion and has a much more well-developed dialogue that exists over multiple centuries - but it is extremely inaccessible to most & filled w/soul-crushing hoops to jump through to get your work seen as worthy of a deeper, broader look (that has about 1% to do with the quality of work itself). the new world is accessible to anyone with a computer is always buzzing w/activity but contains many glass ceilings - it cultivates a cutthroat atmosphere of ultra-conformity based on social codes and friendships and virality where most fall beneath the cracks. and even more than in the old world, they possibly fall through the cracks forever.

9. the theme here is - the world is becoming more and more unequal, and it's becoming easier to see how that affects everyday life. people are increasingly retreating into their own spheres and not listening to dialogue, not considering outside views, increasingly insulating their lives with click-baity junk food, are increasingly trying to be objectively "correct" instead of listening to each other, increasingly projecting their outward biases and anger as the objective truth.

10. as much as i love music, i think the music criticism sphere is worse than the videogames sphere, because at least many people in the videogame world will admit that most videogame writing is consumer-based and has never really escaped that. music critics have much more interesting art to write about and hide behind a thin veneer of cultural legitimacy as a place to hide their unchecked, poorly thought out theses and conclusions that almost always come from a place of weird jealousy and outright ignorance. or they write clickbait about pop spectacles that read exactly the same as clickbait about AAA videogames except with some college freshman level terms to go with it. people there understand that they have to like things other than just mass media spectacle, or other than what confirms their own sense of self and identity, but they still don't really want to.

11. this M.I.A. video pretty much sums up 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpttHOHEKMo\

12. social media has made me intensely distrust and be more paranoid of people than anything else i have experienced in this world.

13. here's for a world filled with complex people and not brands in 2016. here's for a more just, less destructive system for all people 2016. here's for a world where nuance is recognized and celebrated 2016. here's for no more escaping into "comfort food" 2016. here's for going outside your comfort zone and actually talking to people who differ from you 2016. here's for a death of "correctness" and a life for broader empathy and understanding 2016. here's for breaking down social media and corporate hegemony over our daily lives 2016. here's for no more externalizing your ignorance and emotional weaknesses as objective truth 2016. here's for no more escaping into the false legitimacy of old institutions 2016. here's for death to neo-liberalism and austerity 2016.

here's for a land of no memes 2016.



14. here's a starter youtube playlist of songs i like from 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5GCn1BKkxg&index=1&list=PLEdRlER1F5rF6stTG7L_IFnvsiy8OR_VB

15. here is an experimental video presentation about the political theory of Neo-Liberalism and how it intersects into the digital realm/the realm of videogames i did with David Kanaga for this year's Indiecade Conference in LA (download to see the whole thing): https://www.dropbox.com/s/rsmvid0f2n4ac7v/LR%20DK%20IC%20FINAL%20%28%3F%29.mov?dl=0

16. here is the playlist of all of the Doom Mixtape (playthroughs of individual levels from Doom fan mods i find interesting w/commentary) videos i did this year: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEdRlER1F5rF1YMwLG66KPmMuv0h2OWiU

17. i have uploaded a few of my full albums to youtube for streaming. feel free to share them around, and also please consider purchasing them if you haven't & you like them: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEdRlER1F5rF0BnlIG9FlOFAH6CYtLjOB

18. if you like, you can continue to support me on my patreon. thank you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

i'm leaving games

i tweeted this out about a week ago, but basically: after this next month's QGCon and Indiecade (where i'll be doing a talk with David Kanaga about art and politics), i'll be leaving games. this has been a long time coming, and something i need to do for many reasons. the biggest one is that music has always been the most important thing in my life, but i never seriously thought i'd be able to make any kind of real career out of it for a long time. i have terrible performance anxiety and never really thought i had what it took to be a good producer either. there were other reasons, but a lot of why got into working on games stuff because i thought they'd make money. and of course i took an interest in game design, because it's something i've always been interested in. but over that time, my relationship with music evolved in a much healthier way. and i feel like i put had to put that and a lot else about myself aside when i moved here because i thought that's what i needed to be to be liked and successful in an industry like this. and also becomes videogame spheres really do demand of people involved in them to be forever pledged to them for eternity. and that has been extremely destructive to me.

the time i've spent in games has certainly been an interesting one. a lot has happened - it would obviously be impossible to summarize. i have been given some space to explore myself, for sure, and some people have been incredibly supportive and are what have kept me going over the years (and i'm eternally thankful to them). but outside these wonderful people, most of my experiences have been pretty awful and done a lot of damage to my emotional and physical health. needless to say, it's way past time for me to find a place for some healing from past hurt, and to be direct myself back on the right course - where i've always really wanted to go, in the end. a lot about my games career has screamed feelings of unhappiness and unfulfillment to me from the getgo, and i think that's just because i was doing something i've never been fully happy with. but i'm done with that now. now's a time to have more space to think about things without trying to be successful or be a brand, or spend all my time on the constantly anxiety-producing twitter. now's a time for me.

i'll also being moving out of the bay area to portland at the end of this month. there are many reasons for this, some of them personal. but basically, things weren't what i thought they'd be like here at all. it's expensive, it's full of tensions i knew basically nothing about and feel terrible about shoving myself into. i've had tremendous problems with the dynamics of social groups i've been a part of. i've felt a lot of selfishness here, the place is becoming unlivable in multiple ways. i have learned a lot and become a lot less ignorant about a lot of things, of course. i've connected to so many people in ways that would have blown my mind before. but a lot of it's been learned the hard way. i still go through a lot of stress and frustration about how everything went, and feel like a lot of my efforts have been wasted - especially emotional efforts i invested in people i probably shouldn't have been investing in in the first place. i will probably struggle with that for a long time. it's hard to let stuff go. i moved here with next to nothing and a lot of optimism and i'm leaving with much more than that and a lot of pessimism. hopefully these are things that can be shed over time, in a safer space. we'll see, i suppose. i still have some hope for the future, even if it's a very guarded hope.

--- SO HEY, since i haven't posted on here in forever, i figured it would be good to update this here blog on the happenings of the past year. the biggest thing, of course, is my Patreon - which is still my primary source of income. i still very much plan to do more with in it the coming months. i am eternally thankful to many people's generous support on here. without it there's no way i could have survived like i have. it's been a hard time, but i'm glad people have been there to get me through it. i hope you can continue to support me in the future ---

now, for more catching up:

~~~ first and foremost, i released some music this past June: "EP Year Zero". it's mostly older stuff, but i wanted to put it together in a nice place.

~~~ i did a talk at this past GDC called "The Power of the Abstract" which you can watch the video to (free!) there. it was a fairly big undertaking but a lot of people came and i was happy with the end result. the comments were, however, less than stellar. i also spoke with Isaac Schankler at this year's Different Games conference about unconventional approaches to composing game audio - the link to the video is there.

~~~ i was also on the jury for this past IGF Nuovo award which the fabulous Tetregeddon Games by the fabulous Nathalie Lawhead won. 

~~~ i did a series of videos on selected levels i like from Doom mods with commentary called "Doom Mixtape". the link to the full playlist is there.

~~~ in other youtube news, i did a few commentated playthroughs of increpare games and streamed myself playing through all six episode of Wolfenstein 3D (warning: audio is a little lo-fi) on twitch.

~~~ i wrote a couple articles you might have missed. the first is from last month - a piece i put up on Medium about FKA Twigs and the double-standards of online pop feminism. the second was for Offworld - a very personal piece about my getting into making games, my relationship with Braid and the inception of Problem Attic.

~~~ i did the sound library for Anna Anthropy's neat game tool Emotica Online and sound fx for Brandon Sheffield's ill-fated last Playstation Mobile game Oh, Deer!

~~~ i made a few Mario Maker levels you can find the codes and screenshots to them here.

~~~ as always, you can always find updates to the most important stuff i've done on my tumblr (like art, and any other things), in lieu of anywhere else. especially if i'm trying to spend less time on twitter!


post script:

i've recently been fixated on watching a lot of retro game collecting shows on youtube. one is called "The Game Chasers", which involves a couple of men from Texas and their cohorts driving around to flea markets and game stores trying to get deals and catch each other 'slipping', as the catch phrase of the show goes. the show also features lots of farting and references to each other as "chodes", for those wondering about the quality of the programming here. another is called "Flea Market Madness" by PatTheNESPunk, who shows up to flea markets early in the morning to hunt for good deals on games with his friend Frank (my favorite part of the show), an older eccentric completely disinterested in games. Pat, by the way, is also known for employing a "but it's about ethics in game journalism" argument on youtube in the early days of GamerGate. so yeah, that's kind of what you should expect.

as strange as it sounds, i've become weirdly absorbed into both of these. part of it might be that their kind of game collecting is something actually very familiar to me. me and my brother collected NES games and followed the much smaller online NES community back in the late 90's/early 2000's (tsr's NES archive, anyone?) when he first got a job as a teenager. at one point we had close to 150 NES games, several boxed. it was, of course, easier to find stuff then than it is now, with a market much more interested in retro and the idea of owning the actual, real deal. and i was always more interested in playing the games than he was - which is probably why he sold most of them off not too long after.

a lot of this stuff is still swimming around in my head, but it permeates around Magfest, where several Game Chasers episodes were filmed. Magfest was my first game event of any kind - it was the place to meet up with people i knew from back from my time as a remixer/community member on OCRemix, which was a very formative (and often frustrating) website for me in my teens. i have fond memories of the two Magfests i went to - Magfest 8 & 9 (January 2010 and 2011), even if i had already basically moved away from that community several years back and my reunion was relatively short-lived. i still have a very awkward and complicated feelings about that phase of my life. but part of it was really meaningful and important to me, even if i seemed to grow out of it all very quickly.

i still think back and i try to visit that kind of unpretentious enjoyment of games and game music - before i knew much of anything about indie games. before i went to GDC. before i did any talks at any conferences. before i somehow became part of a "queer games scene". before anyone saw me as being "important". i look back with sadness, because it was still really fun and important time to me. but there was also such a sadness and emptiness at its core i've never been able to get over.

IRC channels i regularly spent my waking hours in my damaged state after college in were constantly filled with people talking about how awesome last years Magfest was, and how they got so drunk, and how next year will be even more epic. people structured their entire lives around it. so many didn't really have an existence or sense of purpose outside of it. i felt very much a part of this because of that. i still never understood why, if it was that important to them, they couldn't spend more time trying to make these things happen outside of Magfest. but i don't know how capable of it they really were. these were people living for an event that only lasted three or four days out of each year. just one little burst to bring them out of the monotony of their otherwise boring existence. post-Magfest depression was always such an immense thing for everyone for a reason. you came back, usually with a horrible flu, back to your normal existence. and it sucked. it's hard to have such a high and have to wait a year again for anything approaching that meaning in your life. i escaped all of this by going on my own path, maybe, but i still think i lost a lot in the process.

the fact is: i cried hysterically at the end of my second Magfest. it was meaningful to me as much as anyone else. i felt like my life was nothing at the time, and i didn't want to go back to it anymore. so i ran away from that life and into games. and found that land of internet fun and games was not at all what i thought it was.

i guess this also just goes back to the whole culture of retro gaming. these discarded bits of consumer culture become people's church, their mecca. they become such an important and fundamental part of their lives. they become holy in every sense of the world. and the culture becomes much more about how this reflects on them and their identity, and what happened in the past, and endlessly trying to re-own and relieve every event of your childhood, than generating new culture or engaging with stuff critically or seeing clearly. of course it is a clouded, manic kind of excitement that's very infectious and extremely unpretentious. and that manic energy is a far cry from the businesslike seriousness of GDC or all the cutthroat competition and social dynamics and pretensions of indie game/tech spheres, for sure, but there is no moving on in the world of videogame fandom. the love becomes a weird fetishism that can never be escaped from. everything is put on a pedestal forever, never to be removed or changed.

watching a video by Pat the NES Punk on the Flintstones: Return To Dinosaur Peak (one of the rarest NES games), i see the emptiness of this dynamic exposed in its rawest form. Pat's videos are filled with weird "why am i wasting my life" jokes and asides, but this video takes it to another level, into an absolutely excruciating level of pathos. at the end he makes a plea to his audience to consider why any of this is even important or valuable. at first, it seems to be a joke. but then the video just ends and never goes anywhere after that. and in that moment it seems, very clearly, to not be a joke. 

Pat poses a really good question to his audience that he obviously has no way of answering. in the end, if you're one of the lucky ones like him and you're a straight white guy from America with lots of disposable income - you can try and own everything. you can collect them all. you can search far and wide to try and save all these old cartridges from less loved fates. but you can never own what you really desire - to gain back your childhood. you can never really get back that feeling that you lost. it won't ever be like it was before. and you really never have space to discover yourself or move on from it healthily, because that's not what the culture is about. so instead of dealing with this trauma, we try to create bigger and bigger illusions and fantasies onto ourselves. we make it part of our world, hoping it will seep into our sense of being. but it can never bring us onto a path of awareness or clarity or fulfillment, where we can see these things for what they are and move on from them, happily. they will always be ghosts of the past stuck inside of us.

the thing i love about game culture is so many people try and preserve what creations were left behind by a ruthless, brutal market and bringing it back to the forefront in a passionate, sincere way. that's the best of what something like Magfest has to offer the world to me - an unaffected, infectious, incredibly excited exploration into the world of games (and especially the music, which i've always connected to so much). the thing i hate about game culture is there's no real creation, no challenging, no constructive criticism, no moving forward, no healing. the fundamental truths of games can never really be questioned unless you want to greatly offend people's entire basis for being. even as the industry moves on coldly and the world of indie games moves on just as coldly. and so it just seems, in the end, like the church for a lot of very damaged, lost people. and nothing i've ever experienced in games - even after several years of being involved in the "social justice warrior" side of games, has really challenged this fundamental truth for me.

so yes, maybe one day i will return back to making games. who knows? i still believe in the potential of the medium - there's so many directions you can go and that people are going in. there will continue to be the exceptions - the increpares or Tetrageddons. and i don't think my work in this sphere can ever really be done, for sure. but videogame culture - from the fans to indie games, to alt and queer games spaces, to game jams, up into the highest level of the industry, is and probably will forever remain very insular and closed off to outsiders. because of that, and many other reasons, i'm fine to have nothing really to do with it - or anything surrounding it - its conceptions, its critics, its creators, teachers, preachers and practicers - anymore.

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.


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 disempowerment, 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 Patreon have rewards systems for their supporters very similar to kickstarter. there are 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 often a place to practice your own identity how you saw fit and define yourself away from the confines of society (though admittedly only to those who could afford it and fit within active subcultures). even with all the changes that have happened to the internet over the years, in a way this has never completely 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.


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.


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.


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


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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