Saturday, August 3, 2019

make stuff and be free! (to vanish without a trace)

note: if you don't like orange (what's wrong with you?), you can also read this post on my patreon here:

in a Discord channel i started recently to talk about art games, someone brought up Eric Zimmerman's "The Ludic Century" and it made me re-read the manifesto published on Kotaku that so aroused my ire in 2013.

someone in the chat pointed out the similarities in the manifesto between the Italian Futurists, and other people criticized it for being exclusionary of various peoples. but really, from re-reading it now: it was hard to find anything to respond to in the manifesto at all, because it seemed so bereft of new or interesting, or even mildly controversial ideas. it's a re-statement of conventional wisdom from the last couple decades of Gamification and Games for Change-ish bland neoliberal rhetoric about using the market to teach people more empathy. at the end of the day it seems to be more about affirming career choices of game designers or academics with the general sense that "videogames are actually really important, you guys!"

and you know what: they are important! let's be like Nancy Pelosi and clap back at the hypothetical gatekeepery middlebrow Roger Ebert man-demons of the world who were probably never going to listen or care anyway.

stuff like The Ludic Century manifesto is just empty affirmations of the importance of digital culture for the sake of digital culture. except for whatever digital frontiers we may be able to explore and colonize in the future, it's the end of history! it all just has to happen the way we said it does because it has to happen: it's an inevitability, and imagining anything else is an impossibility. just make stuff and be free!

i'm sure you've seen the headlines if you're reading this. videogames and game culture have become an increasingly mainstream aspect of pop culture. Twitch consistently draws in more viewers than Netflix and many of the biggest youtube stars (many of whom got their start doing Let's Plays of videogames) have consistently more views than the highest Nielsen rated shows on tv. because the audience often skews younger and there's an impenetrability and unreliability to the metrics used by companies like Google or Amazon, it's often still ignored or dismissed as not as relevant to culture by more established voices. but it's hard to ignore the impact the culture for and around consuming games has had on especially younger generations.

but, you might say: What Does This New Youth Culture Stand For? are the kids really all right?? or are they being programmed to destroy all culture, nay, the fabric of space and time itself by the Pewdiepies, the Minecrafts, the Fortnites, and God willing, the MEMES??!!!

in the past year i've started teaching game design part-time (as an effort to have something that slightly resembles more of a "real job"). and after a few semesters of teaching, it's become very clear to me that basically all game programs, even the ones that aren't explicitly in the mold of manufacturing kids to be good game industry workers, are all extremely practice-oriented. there are obvious reasons for this: there's no real agreed-upon language to use, nor is there a large body of criticism or existing artistic movements to draw upon in videogames. (but there sure are a lot of random essays on blogs like this one that no one remembers a years after they come out). plus there's a cageyness for many who work in the games industry to having their work be described or theorized about in a broader way... because of how many important cultural critics of the past have punched themselves in the dick ridiculously mischaracterizing, downplaying, or just downright insulting the medium of videogames.

so what does exist are sort of vague statements designed not to offend anyone or really take any particular stance on anything beyond saying "yay games!". and that's stuff like The Ludic Century, or also intentionally vague and overly broadly defined concepts like "Game Feel" that game designers often treat like a bible and create a religion around the Great Gods of Polish and Accessibility. we all must serve the God of the market: and he thirsts for more blood. any counter-narratives that try and bring in material or political realities to the theorizing of games, when they do exist, basically have to be created entirely by the teacher and are no doubt promptly forgotten by students once they leave the class. the end result is a bunch of university programs that are pumping out students who are filling Steam and with their games without much of a sense of cultural participation or continuity or like... sense of exploring concepts in general in their work.

digital spaces and technology, more broadly, often extol the virtues of "maker culture". we feel greater than ever impulses to just make stuff for the sake of making stuff in order to serve the Content Gods. being a craftsman is seen as better than all those pretentious highfalutin' types who are out for themselves and don't understand what you're doing. but maker/craftsman/practice-oriented culture leads to digital platforms that are filled to the brim with stuff that's made with barely any context, or continuity, or exploring larger concepts in general... with virtually no one who knows how to talk about any of it in an interesting way. and we all know who the first people disappeared and resigned to permanent irrelevance are on these platforms (hint: it's not the people who have lots of money and connections).

it may sound funny to say this as a critic, but i do think i'm more practice-oriented than theory-oriented at the end of the day. i think creating a work of art can be much more powerful and impactful than just theorizing about it. and i think theory has increasingly become weak and ineffectual at addressing broader societal issues and more concerned with justifying the career of whoever is spouting it at the moment. the post-modern academic tendency to over-theorize that took over in the latter half of the 20th century is part of what has slowly led to artistic communities that are in love with the concept of having a concept and so choked out of any life or inspiration to them.

the arts have become very bifurcated between the children of rich who live "the art life" to feel more relevant and less alienated from the rest of the world because of their privileged existences, and everyone else who does it to exist and compete with other artists in a brutal battle royale in the good old sphere of commerce. undoubtedly, public investment of resources away from the arts has been the biggest factor in making art communities increasingly just a space for the children of the wealthy and powerful. and it also contributed to this internalized guilt towards the idea of making art at all, and the need for the artists to find new ways for justifying the idea of "meritocracy" as it applies to singing the praises of of the free hand of the market. that general uncritical affection towards mass-manufactured commercial culture is probably something you've gotten used to seeing now if you're around people who need to make a living in that space at all. if you're rich you get to think about concepts (at least to the extent that those concepts don't implicate you), but if you're poor you only ever get to think about the market. anything else is a ridiculous indulgence.

but when The Arts become merely a copy of a copy of a copy, a lifestyle accessory for the rich, and a hyper-effective venue for gentrification, the sense of overall context or struggle gets sucked out of the work. apoliticization of art and artists also leads to this myth of the isolated genius laboring over their masterwork. there's a sense that if your work does manage to jump out of this commercial battle royale while still being unique and having lots of resonance with people, it must be a product of your mind being acutely sensitive, or more attuned to the cosmic powers of the universe. if you are around my age (early 30's) and grew up following indie rock music, i'm sure you'll recall the obsessive cults of personality around people like Jeff Mangum or Kevin Shields: the lone isolated eccentric genius. who knows to what extent they intentionally cultivated that view of themselves vs. if it was just an accident, but those myths are invariably destructive to the people who live inside them.

the thing is, we should be so lucky now. for anyone coming into this new media landscape to get that sort of treatment is a laughable fantasy. there's no space to be cool now. a vast majority of people who are making art now and don't have access/resources to larger structures will never get to live inside those kind of myths, no matter how "genius" their work is or how quirky their personality is. it's of course always true that myth-building around these things, if they become popular, tend to serve a purpose for people in power in one way or another. and it's not a healthy sort of way to approach someone's work beyond a certain point of getting larger recognition to it. but the landscape around art has become so unimaginably unequal that the ability to reach a larger consciousness to the point where anyone would even react or respond to your work EXISTING AT ALL without some kind of weird viral fluke is basically impossible.

and, even more darkly: we're not even close to having a basic foothold on how to talk about the deluge of stuff that's put out on digital platforms from this culture that values endless production for the sake of production of more stuff. we can frame this sea of stuff as a new explosion of creativity: maybe it is, at least in some limited ways. but if we can't find an interesting/enlightening way to sift through stuff, most of this wave will disappear without so much as a peep. it'll go up in smoke without most people knowing, just as a significant chunk of recorded music history did in 2008. except with not a bang, but a whimper.

Paolo Pedercini has said several times that if you're any kind of outsider or pushing for some kind of substantive change in your field, you have to actively label and contextualize yourself and the work you're doing, otherwise someone will do it for you. i think this comment was partly in reaction to how the queer games scene i was semi-a part of that got framed as "The Queer Games Scene" against pretty much everyone involved's will. that label ended up defining the scene in ways which probably contributed to it falling apart faster and more violently than it might have otherwise.

i agree in part with what Paolo says there. but the reality i see now is far more dark than that. i don't think anyone in this day and age can depend on anyone talking about or contextualizing their work at all. i think being viewed as irrelevant and vanishing without a trace is the far more inevitable reality for most people than being framed in a negative light (let alone any kind of light at all). one of the strange ironies to me about GamerGate in 2019 is imagining the idea of anyone getting that mad about a Twine game getting written up on a few videogame websites now. when people are mad at you en masse to the point where it leads to harassment it at least tells you that you're having an impact on the culture in some way. now there's just too much stuff for anyone to care or notice for more than two seconds. unless you're The Last Jedi or Ghostbusters.

i think we need to start to view criticism far less as an exercise in pontificating about the nuances of a work or as a venue to place personal narratives onto a work, and much more as just a form of preservation of culture. especially in the context where giant corporate conglomerates like Disney are doing everything in their power to keep audiences and entire critical industries fixated on them. if you can create curiosity towards an artist or cultural object that might have not existed at all before, people are way more likely to remember that and have it impact them later on in the future. really, the biggest obstacle is just getting people to care at all.

do i know how to do this? absolutely not! but i think there has to be a point where we all step down from our high horses and our "no ethical consumption under capitalism"s and "i need to do this to pay rent"s and acknowledge that the preservation of all culture that doesn't flow out from big corporate giants like Disney is what's at stake here. someone, somewhere needs to decide to go against the flow of the hand of the market that's pushing us all helplessly downstream. we're all, in effect, the servants of oligarchy at the end of the day if we don't do this.... even if we don't feel we have any choice, or just have to pay rent.

and if you're an artist: and you don't want to risk your work or the work of the vast majority of us who don't have the Big Buxxx behind us lining the dustbin of history, you have to find some way to contextualize what you're doing, where you're coming from, and why you're doing it. otherwise you're free, like the rest of us, to vanish without a trace.

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