Wednesday, May 8, 2013

an in-depth response to darius kazemi's "fuck videogames"

Darius Kazemi's recent piece "Fuck Videogames" talks about how videogames are not necessarily a medium suited for expressing all the sorts of things we'd like to use them for. Ian Bogost summarizes the aim of this piece in his short response:

  1. It's not necessarily more "noble" or whatever to express something in videogame form, particularly if it's not working for you.
  2. Often expressing something with videogames primarily serves a meta-rhetorical purpose or benefit ("Look, X made a game about Y"), which might actually detract from or even reverse the desired expression.
  3. Often the desire to express something with videogames is really just a desire to gain approval from a particular audience associated with videogames (he uses Twine games as an example), which may or may not be a valid goal but it's wrong to bind it to videogame expression.

an issue that i see underlying the whole piece that is never really expressed explicitly - it's the case with many "gamers" and techies in general that so many who have constructed their lives and identities through videogames often have a hard time accepting that there are other valid means of expressing or legitimizing their own emotions outside of technology. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they want to make personal videogames because they understand how videogames work (having played them a lot) and that they can express deep emotions through play, but they don't have the kind corresponding experience with other forms of art to understand how those work. this lack of understanding combined with videogames' newness means they get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms.

and that defines conversations among people passionate about games more than anything else - a spirit of "we can do anything with games". one that can take on a socially progressive angle, but is often really driven by the same ultra-capitalist, highly fascist idea of tech culture's that humankind can overcome any kind of obstacles facing it through better technological products - or building more "perfect" systems.

but let's talk about points 2 & 3 of Bogost's summary in more detail. here's a direct quote from Kazemi's piece:

"Some people make games because games are cool, or sexy...if you write a blog post about your cat, probably nobody will care. But if you make a GAME about your cat, it’ll get covered on a blog or something!"

i love Twine. it has plenty of issues, but it is a very accessible tool that has allowed many to make games who would otherwise not have the patience or understanding for it. this is a good thing. i have mostly avoided doing my own Twine games, though, because if i usually feel like if i want to write something personal, i'd rather just do it here on my blog - instead of presenting players with some vaguely game-like, and ultimately not very meaningful set of choices. plenty Twine games don't do this - but it's always a danger of making games in that (or any other) format.

making a Twine game does not divorce you from all of the trappings of videogame culture and substitute it with something more pure, and it certainly doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility as the creator. using a Twine game as a way to write about your own personal experiences doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility, either. a game, like any piece of art, is a subjective window to reality - not reality itself. presentation is always the key, and it always defines how others will interpret and respond to your experience.

a lot of people also make Twine games as a social activity, and to have their experiences accepted and legitimized by others. and that's alright, but i find it highly peculiar that it seems to be treated as a somehow more momentous or more deep medium to express one's own emotions.

we are a culture that defines itself through words. the "important works of art" we're exposed to in school are novels, and maybe poetry. we inherently value words as way more deeper and insightful signifiers of meaning than images or sounds. anything that doesn't fit into that way of thinking is either treated with suspicion, or seen as vague, or strange, or manipulative, or incomprehensible, or frivolous. and i think this is a toxic idea. it is very easy to wrap oneself up in a cloud of words, or to build a tower out of them, convinced their ultimate rightness and trueness. but there is nothing inherently more right and true about words - in fact, they often serve to obscure meanings much more intuitively communicated through images or sounds.

Twine games - and "personal" games in general, of course, can be a great avenue for fostering empathy, and letting us explore aspects of ourselves and others we couldn't otherwise. but they're only one avenue.

i worry that we're more used to connecting with systems in videogames than with people. we tend to have trouble understanding how to make choices unless they are presented in a game-like manner. so we're using these games as a way to better understand ourselves and others through a way that we can connect with. and that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. but games are often not the best mirrors, either - particularly when creators aren't very thoughtful about the choices they provide their players. it's easy to misrepresent personal experiences in all kinds of awkward and manipulative ways and undermine your ultimate goals.

i have to admit - "personal" games have been a real thorn in my side. i did the music for Dys4ia, a game i love by a game designer (and human being) i love that has done many wonderful things for many people. but i don't know if critics would've understood at all what the game was communicating if the text wasn't there to tell them exactly what each little minigame was about. and maybe that's underestimating their intelligence, but i haven't given much reason to suspect that most critics have any ability or desire to comprehend subtlety in the thing they're experiencing either.

i am extremely skeptical that making an on-the-surface "personal" game is an inherently more valid or emotionally honest way to express oneself. i have seen too many times where clueless critics only construct meaning of works of artists as either a form of political protest or some kind of evocation of personal demons. these are the two pre-baked avenues allowed artists in a society that doesn't really understand or value artistic expression very highly.

in an effort to expand the expressive and empathetic range of the medium i feel like we've made a mistake in what we've chosen to highlight the most. to put it another way: i am tired of the lazy way we talk about these games. i'm starting to feel like i won't be taken seriously unless i make a game that is viewed as "serious" or as "personal". i am starting to feel like unless i say my game is "about rape" or "about transphobia" or "about misogyny" (three things i know a lot about) and clearly articulate why this is the case, that i won't be taken seriously. i must be trying to achieve some kind of articulable political goal, and/or the things featured in the game must be "my" experiences. otherwise, i'm just making another stupid cartoony videogame.

"Buying into the idea that validation can/should/will come from a given culture is way more nourishing to that culture than it is to you."

let's not beat around the bush: the culture around "indie" games is classist and racist as hell. yes, i said it. those who have the most access have the time and money get to control the distribution and the conversation for everyone else. they also get to run the events and choose what gets talked about at those events. we may try to do all we can to fight against this and subvert it, but they're still controlling the outlets for discussion in the end. major events happen in places like the SF bay area, or NYC, or LA, etc etc - these are where the real connections are made and relationships are built. if you're not around at events like GDC networking and meeting new people (because, let's say, you can't afford them), then you probably won't be taken very seriously or have access to many resources.

people trust people they know. i know this because i've experienced it firsthand. any degree of success or exposure i've had has been a direct result of the people i've surrounded myself with after moving to the bay area. and i'm privileged for that.

the more i've gone to events and met new people, the more i've begun to realize that everyone in this community knows everyone else. and i find that incredibly disturbing. why? because it means we, as participants in this culture lack the ability to be critical of ourselves - because we don't want to hurt our friends' feelings. once you start to greatly prioritize their needs above the needs of people you don't know, you stop becoming critical of yourself and the people around you. and this leads to cliques and increasingly greater and greater conflicts of interest.

one high-profile example that most people know about: Brandon Boyer, chairman of the IGF is friends with Phil Fish, whose game Fez won the overall award in the IGF in 2012, despite having already won an award back in 2008. and yes, i have interacted with Brandon a bit and have seen that he is a swell guy in many ways who cares about a lot of important stuff. and Brandon is no means the only person in this position. i've seen many journalists become close friends with their subjects. but with a lot of power comes a lot of responsibility. being a nice person doesn't mean that he has the ability to take on his friends to do what is needed in that situation. because he hasn't shown that he does.

and yes, i understand that artists tend to connect with like-minded artists. the internet assists greatly in bringing us all together. and the world around "indie" games and thereabouts is a small one as it is. i know that it's inevitable that many of us will make friends with each other. but i don't think it's a desirable situation for everyone to be friends with everyone else. why? because i don't think there are any adequate incentives for people to be critical of their own friends.

i certainly don't need to be friends with everyone. i already feel like i'm stretching myself thin a lot of the time, and i constantly worry about hurting other people's feelings with my opinions. the bay area is a wonderful place in many ways, but i don't think everyone should move here either.

i want to see all kinds of people who are not in positions of privilege, who are poor and non-white, who live nowhere near the power centers of this world do vastly more insightful and interesting things than anything i or my friends could come up with. i know this is very possible, or at the very least, is desperately needed. a vaster breadth of culture would certainly help save us from the increasingly narrow western frontier of highlighting expressive innovations in games built around new mechanics and novel subjects. we're not really respecting these games, as it is. they're ultimately treated as objects for us to feel better about ourselves as self-respecting educated white people who like videogames. they're monuments to a medium we still think of as ultimately stupid and immature.

the worst part is that we secretly don't even like them that much anyway. we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it. it's just there to make us feel good. we'd much rather sink our teeth into some flashy, mass-marketed sludge by an egomaniacal dilettante.


  1. The latter half of this post pretty much describes the policy by which Double Cluepon lives and breathes. We here have totally rejected the cult of personality that surrounds "indie". We're just content to do what we do, the way we choose to do it.

    But you can't always be objective from the inside looking out. It's nice to know, from someone else that our path is definitely a good one, especially for us.

    Thanks for that.

  2. "the worst part is that we secretly don't even like them that much anyway. we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it."

    I like dys4ia quite a bit, but I don't need to play it more than once or twice. Same for Every Day the Same Dream, or Unmanned, or Passage, or And the Robot Horse You Rode In On, or even Limbo. I'm having a hard time calling to mind a serious/personal/art game that was designed for replayability, actually, which might be what you mean when you say we "don't even like them that much". Because if we liked them, we'd spend more time playing them? That doesn't make sense to me.

  3. We're already at a point where the guy who made "Cart Life" feels miserably unworthy and compelled to fall on the sword for other developers with regular written placement on high-traffic websites.

    If we're at a point where we're suggesting computerized, programmed software is as easily (or more easily) accessible to be radicalized for progressive ideals than the written (or even the typed) word, we're fucked.

    Time to stop and double-check, is all I'm saying.

  4. I was very aware of the calling to prostrate oneself before the momentary "scene" of indie and fit in, and I've had nearly every advantage one could hope for. But I made a very deliberate effort to reject a straightforward, conventional approach to games. Perhaps I wanted to be anti-authoritarian, or just tricky.

    As it turned out, I didn't have a principled enough foundation to successfully do this when I started, and it showed in the resulting work, which mostly embarrasses me now. The games that worked and that I both felt good about and connected with people - all game jam projects, because when the clock was ticking I didn't get those distracting thoughts in my head.

    That night last year when we all went to Rudy's and I first talked with you at length, Daphny very generously said I should email games I've made to her, but it had the effect of making me realize that - at that time - I hadn't been making things that I felt good enough to tell friends about. They were projections aimed in no particular direction. It is interesting how "friends" also comes up in your response. Because I now see how it works both ways - friends draw you into trouble, friends rescue you from it. You need diversity of friendship to succeed as a person, because it will keep your viewpoint balanced.

    Simply, I wasn't rejecting 100% of the status quo during that period, just a gradually increasing amount, issue by issue. It took years to work through everything, but as soon as I went all the way and rejected all the external influences, both the social and the economic - which only started this year - I started to feel everything changing, because I could completely own my voice again. I think that was only last true back when I was too young and naive to notice a problem, and so could make things that were truthful to myself but completely selfish.

    And that brings me back to the personal a way of perspective, at no other point in the history of gaming have people attempted to use the medium to express a personal story. So there is a spectacle in having very close thoughts and feelings placed into an interactive format, but also a novelty factor, a flavor of the month, which the original "Fuck Videogames" alludes to. Personal games are the new art game. Art games were the new casual game. Casual games were the new... So as I see it the systemic problem isn't really with the type of games, but with how we tend to get periodic bandwagons that railroad the dialogue into narrow views.

    I also believe that the system is damaging to the privileged, because they can enter while still in the naive/selfish state, and make something very expressive that happens to jibe with the dominant attitudes and the flavor of the month, but subsequently they have to illusion themselves to stay within the system, which results in stagnation and the "one hit wonder" effect - people that end up like this are deserving of pity, as they start to look increasingly misled to observers. It might have been worse for me if I had gotten myself too entangled too early.

    And so I think a real solution is going to look like - at the ground level - a lot of these kinds of personal struggles, people from all backgrounds, searching for their voice and eventually finding it. The big picture of systemic change and cultural revaluation emerges from all of those stories. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the flavor of the month is the personal game.

  5. "we, as participants in this culture lack the ability to be critical of ourselves - because we don't want to hurt our friends' feelings."

    That perfectly describes the Boston indie theater scene, and probably any artistic industry ever. It's scary.

  6. You're right. I couldn't finish Cart Life, despite how I loved the premise. But I did finish Bioshock, despite how I disliked 50% of it. Its something I don't understand (want to confront?) and troubles me.

  7. "I'm having a hard time calling to mind a serious/personal/art game that was designed for replayability, actually, which might be what you mean when you say we "don't even like them that much"."

    I think 'Sleep is Death' was deeply replayable, but then it was little more than a tool-box in essence, albeit one which provided the means for online improvisatory story-telling.

  8. pt.1
    This is a rolling comment as I reread the post...

    Agree with the first point a lot. I really despise the technology will solve everything mindset. Have you seen Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? It's very forthright and sensational, but very interesting.

    The reason I try to do things with computer games that are difficult and possibly more suited to another medium is because we have no idea what is yet possible with games and I want to see more being done with them. I don't think it's superior (obviously not right now, haha, and neither as some future concept of potential) but I feel there is more possibility to cover new ground. I would be creatively satisfied in many mediums: writing, music, film, but I have the ability to make interactive things and have a remote chance of getting them played (film, I have no chance at the moment to make and writing or music has little chance of being seen). Having an audience is important (and sure would be nice. :P) so I can continue making my art and also collaborate/communicate/be inspired by others. Heck, maybe even some part of me wants to make games to help the world be a slightly better place.

    There is a personal twine game I want to make at the moment (and have been putting off with other projects for a month now). While I would still be uncomfortable releasing it I am probably still hiding behind the fact, that it's fictional and analogous rather than a direct representation of what I'm taking about. There are game reasons for this, but also because I think that's more interesting (at least stylish if not as brazen/cool), and that I can be more 'truthful' by not being tied to reality. Perhaps though (well actually probably), making this game is being guilty of trying to have these thoughts legitimized and made more momentous. But for myself rather than anyone else, through creating art hopefully I can get it out of my system and understand it a bit better.

    With Dys4ia you raise an interesting point but I think the thing to remember is that critics are stupid and lazy (because people are stupid and lazy). Would LIM be understood without context? I think so. The specifics might have been lost on many but I think Merrit's feelings would have come through. Would it have been taken as 'seriously', I don't know. I think this is because there simply is a lack of games that have anything to say at a deeper level that the culture doesn't exist yet to be able to parse or think about them meaningfully. However this is true of more established mediums too, that critics will take a very surface reading of something, place it into a neat box and move onto the next news worthy thing. It's only with time do the subtleties of any work reveal themselves. I guess in another sense making your intentions clear gives people a pass to talk about them too, rather than having to go out on a limb on how they see something.

    It is very disappointing that you feel you must shout about what the game you're making is about, or address a 'hot-button' topic for people to think seriously about what you're doing. #sadpaul

    1. pt.2
      Right, the main reason I wanted to reply was the next bit, 'the scene'. I'm completely conflicted too. And with Brog & Adam Saltzman raising the issues since I first read your post, I might write something myself.

      So, everyone knows everyone because people in computer games are a fucking tiny minority in this world. That's the problem. And, like you say, when everyone is friends or wants to be, everyone is nice to each other. I think Ludum Dare is a really good analogy. There's a lot of good that comes from everyone being super positive (encouraging, constructive), but then sometimes it's just not helpful or constructive. I see it similarly to Jonathan Blow's perspective on Game Jams. The positivity serves a very good purpose, especially when you're starting out, but in the long run we're possibly missing out. And when's everyone's friends who is there to rebel against? (In a meaningful way, rebelling against AAA is pretty pointless now I think. We've done that well enough already).

      I think we actually talked about this when we were schmoozing at the cool Wild Rumpus party (case in point ;) ). Anyone not in the club who isn't but does something cool is soon brought into the fold. This isn't an official or conscious club clearly, but a disparate group of friends of friends of someone else's friend / acquaintance. It's because we're so tightly connected with people we don't really know and the internet is so public, that criticism usually gets misinterpreted and doesn't help anyone (Phil was as a pretty outspoken guy, same with Mr. Blow, it really didn't help them or anyone though).

      I think it's a good thing that a 'scene' exists now. All creative eras were driven by creative communities, the lone genius is an absolute rarity (and even then still existed in a society which stimulated them, not a high tower). This is what drives me to meet people (whether completely new or people whose work I know): stimulation and inspiration. And I think people can be critical in private and with creators that they are very good friends with (rather than acquaintances).

      However, I think the bigger issue from this is that Indie is, in a lot of ways, a GIANT MONOCULTURE. At least it's very often perceived and positioned as such. Which is not healthy. And so what indie is and what new indies get attention is largely determined by those first indies who got attention. THIS is the problem. We need more splinters. And splinters from those splinters. We're getting better. I think the issue is that it is necessary to go through this period from having very few indies (ie: 90's, early 00's), then a small number which grows as a monoculture. Hopefully we can keep encouraging the growth of creators until it fractures. Where we don't have a handful of blogs that cover "indie", but lots of communities and where anyone can make a game and have their voice heard. The things is I'm not sure some of things "we" are doing are actually helping.

    2. pt.3

      What has made me feel a bit uncomfortable recently, is the whole Horizon thing. Brandon is a solid A guy: super friendly, killer taste, passion etc. But, and with no fault of his own (hey look how many justifications I can squeeze in here!), at a certain point it starts to feel like a giant PR machine for "indie". I want Venus Patrol to exist and flourish (and plans for patronage like subscription/commission system would be awesome if worked out), but the Horizon thing feels... unnecessary. After 5/6 years games outside of traditional industry are being heard, I really don't think we need to make a big stand at something like E3 (which is dieing precisely because of how great everything else is doing). And by existing (a state it's hard to begrudge for anything), it is, not intentionally, positioning itself as the spokesperson for 'indie'. This is the indie conference, here are the indie games, these are the indie creators who matter. Forgot Xbox4, buy our system! And who's defining what worthwhile Indie is? Brandon Boyer?

      Of everyone, that's a good pick. I just feel like there's more worthwhile stuff to do. I know this is probably something this was being planned and then became a happy. I also know in the grand scheme of things the numbers that play "indie" versus traditional are still tiny... This is all just food for thought. This monoculture was inevitable, but let's not sustain it let's tear it the fuck down. Let's have room for the rebels and breakaways and let's bring it to more than just Western, tech-obsessed.

      Ps: Disagree with the last bit. You are just feeling a bit grumpy. :P Although there is something to the fact that watching a 'great' film or reading a 'classic' requires so much from the person, that sometimes you just want to watch an immediate tv show or even reality tv.

  9. Man that was way longer than I thought and full of errors. The bit I mentioned to talking to you was about everyone having to be nice rather than the (not really a club) indie club specifically.

    I will think about this Monoculture some more and if I write something on my site/gamasutra I think I will call my post Fuck "Indie Games". I don't know if I have the "cred" to write that though and not be ostracized forever. :D

    I think this is precisely what I said to you in person, what have I done to talk shit? Who cares. :P


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