Videogame journalism and the values we hold

A couple weeks ago I gave a lecture on the history of videogame journalism, which I’ve now uploaded to YouTube for anyone interested in getting my understanding of the trajectory of the practise, mainly from an institutional or structural perspective.

The talk lays out some of the basic history of videogame journalism (in a very broad-strokes way) and attempts to explain some of the reasons why I think videogame culture is the way it is today – and how we’ve ended up with a culture that is so exclusionary. In this respect, I was touching on similar themes to what Steve Swift and Marigold Bartlett would talk about a couple weeks later at Freeplay 2013 (which should be no surprise, since they quote some of my more well known work arguing against these near-meaningless, exclusionary terms like “immersion” and “replayability”).

The first half explores many of the historic forces that shaped videogame magazines, from their roots in tech journalism to argue that videogame journalists have held an incredible amount of influence over the language and framing of how we engage with games. The second half looks at how these forces were shaken up by the internet, talks a bit about the faustian compact between the Press and the Publishers that got worse during this period, and concludes with the New Games Journalism (NGJ) movement which arrived alongside this shift to blogging and the alternative spaces and voices the internet afforded.

I didn’t get into making a really good case in the video for why NGJ is such a good approach, but in the tutorials I taught after giving the lecture, I did a really interesting exercise with my students that I think gets to the heart of why NGJ is so fantastic. I had my students attempt to explain to me what the terms “immersion”, “visceral”, “replayability” and “gameplay” meant as if I were their grandmother, or someone who has never played games before at all. In most cases, students began by trying to nail down an explanation that treated their term as some particular quality the game itself possessed. In my discussion with them, however, we almost invariable ended up concluding that each of the four terms was actually something relational – and a phenomenon created by the confluence of a player and the game.

If there is one thing that NGJ is still vastly better at than the mainstream ‘analytical’ approach (which I still take to be the dominant mode games journalism operates in, though the coordinates of acceptability around this are definitely changing) it is in the recognition that all these words are relational terms. Immersion happens for a player; Replayability is only ever calculable for a particular player; and so on and so forth.

What I didn’t get to mention in the lecture (mostly because I hadn’t quite figured it out myself) was that these terms expose the very values that hold, and establish hierarchies of “more and less replayable games” with (typically) multiplayer and twitch type games at the pinnacle of the “more replayable” (think of the corollary term: “replay value”  – it’s right there in the title). Here’s what Kieron Gillen said years ago in his chronically misread and misunderstood manifesto:

New Games Journalism rejects this, and argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there.

The typical reader infers from that that confected emotion and experience is the goal, rather than a clear elucidation of the relational experience between player and game. That’s how I wish I ended the talk.

Yet another thing about responsibility (woah almost like a theme is emerging or something…)

The NY Times has a piece up called ‘The Busyness Trap’ which is half-good, half-typical-bullshit-NY-Times-op-ed. (“Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France” ugh fuck off) But there’s one line that is interesting as evidence of just the sort of thing I’m really interested in:

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

These kinds of pronouncements of collective failure, or failure-by-group are really weird. They have a weird mereology about them I think. Like which one is more real – individuals, or the collective? Or are you proposing a flat ontology? Which way does causality run, upwards or downwards; from individuals to collectives or from collectives to individuals?

One criticism of my analysis might be that I am ascribing too much perception to this shitty NY op-ed and to popular pronouncements of this kind in general. But I don’t want to privilege intentionality. Why can’t they accidentally (algorithmically, as a function of their own language and rhetoric?) stumble upon a popular flat ontology? That’s part of the beauty of autonomy and agency anyway, right? The accident and the surprise (serendipity) are its primary attractions. This is what I liked most about Michel Chion’s work on film sound, and why I wrote my undergrad thesis on it.

Sudden realisation: this same aesthetic (?) concern has animated most of my work since at least 2007 (and I’m now thinking of examples form even earlier! I wrote a chat bot in High School! I’ve been a Bot Love forever!!).

A quote about responsibility

I’m reading a tiny bit of Emmanuel Levinas to try and pilfer some ideas, and I stumbled upon this quote:

“To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here” – Rabbi Yochanan

This quote is really, really interesting to me. For several complex reasons. 1) How is this order of responsibility distributed, or how does it deal with distribution? When one human (I am substituting ‘men’ for the more general ‘human’) is left without food are we “all” responsible, in that no circumstance including our lack of both knowledge and proximity assuages us? 2) What form does that responsibility appropriately take – guilt, action, grief, spiritual damnation, etc? 3) Why does this order of responsibility seem to implicate nonhumans also, such that the circumstance of (say) “Being a grain of wheat” but not spontaneously and circumstantially comporting oneself into a loaf of bread along with ones comrades seems not to be forgiven? 4) This seems rather pointed an implication of God for a Rabbi to be making, especially as one with sovereign domain over all circumstance.

Of course Levinas’ application of this quote (of a Rabbi from an unknown point in history – the quote just references the ‘Treatise Sanhedrin’ book of, what I presume is the Talmud?) is  isn’t writing from the same frame as me whatsoever, he’s responding to the phenomenologists and the particular situation of post-WWII philosophy, etcetara. But it’s interesting just how tied up in knots this kind of ethical imperative gets as soon as I begin to include or ascribe agency to nonhumans.

Also we could say that the good Rabbi was limiting his address to human readers… still, it’s incredibly interesting to think about, and a powerful quote. Even limited to just humans, it makes a case for a strong ethical force that binds all humanity together to one another. It makes a case for a total knowledge of all humans via all-seeing surveillance, too I would suppose…

But obviously it’s not proposing any of those things and it’s hyperbole and rhetoric and polemic and a damn good example of all three.

So we have a new PM

Just a quick blarg to note something I observed: on the same day as I saw calls for more academics to engage with the public, to demonstrate their “relevance” and safeguard their research funding in the face of Tone Abet’s razor-gang set to slash “waste” in ARC grants… I also saw a “really great” blog post on why blogging and specifically the injunctive to “blog your research” is a trap by which capitalism captures our thinking, rhythms, affective labour, etc. etc. in line with Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism. Blogging as “expressing your individuality and worth,” the author suggested, was a Berlantian Cruel Optimism, actually impeding our achieving a better future.

To the former I wanted to say, “Miyamoto never had to work for press like this” and I very nearly left an angry comment before thinking better of it (close call). And to the latter, I guess I wasn’t sure what to say because I skim read it and then went and did something else instead on the net. Hey look its the internet, go play.

Darshana is getting rock hard abs instead of getting into fights.

The Coles and Woolies Campaign is Bullshit; Let Me Count The Ways

So this is some bullshit right here.

As much as I know we all want this kind of thing to be good it’s really the complete opposite of that. I’ll give you a few reasons, and there’s more I won’t go into now, but the essence is that this is “better than regular capitalism” – which is just a flat-out ideological smokescreen. Remember the McDonald’s video? Similar thing is happening here – the problems posed by capitalism are provisionally addressed by some kind of appeal to capitalism with a human face, or capitalism with a smile. While in the McDonald’s video it was the gesture to transparency that ends up hiding the hideous manipulation in plain sight, here it’s an “offset” ideology. Offset the worst, while using the same (sales; marketing; etc) techniques as everyone else.

Capitalism is still going to ruin the planet, but since we’re inevitably stuck on this path of utter ruin how about we put some smiles on some faces at the same time? That’s their (unstated) position and argument as to why you should ditch “regular” capitalism and instead “do some good” while expressing your consumer capitalist purchasing power. Do I need to add how problematic it is basing one’s capacity to do good on the excess purchasing power of middle class, aspirational young people? Why do you think there’s no one over 30 in this video – why are they all the exact same people who gravitate towards prestigious NGOs?

I’m tempted to see this as yet another extension of what Graeber acknowledges about the way the middle-class Left monopolises any kinds of altrusitic work outside of the church or the military. The way that it keeps these people out is primarily via wealth – if you can’t afford to intern, you’re shit out of luck – and via culture. Look at the homogenous pricks in this video. Do you think a single one of them has ever had a unique thought in their short lives?

As an example of the monopolisation of this kind of work, my mum was a solicitor for 25yrs, has two masters degrees in development studies and international relations and STILL can’t get work at an NGO or similar because she doesn’t fit the cultural/ideological profile of the kind of person they want to hire in order to uncritically keep doing what they’re doing. It’s the blind leading the blind, honestly.

The other thing that’s worth pointing out is the way that the video is totally rife with bullshit semio-capitalist assumptions about work and labour and activism: “If you’re a little bit creative like me” UGH, NO YOU ARE LITERALLY THE LEAST CREATIVE THINKER OF YOUR WHOLE WRETCHED GENERATION. Is this what activism consists of now? Entreating impressionable, aspirational young people into doing little dances and flooding the Facebook pages of our national supermarket duopoly to pressure them into accepting their demands?

Oh, and you know how Woolies and Coles decide what products they stock on shelves? They charge a large shelf-space fee. Remembering that no one, least of all a corporation like ThankYou Water, can be entirely altruistic under capitalism (or else they’d starve/go out of business/etc) do you really think ThankYou Water is trying to do this only out of the goodness and kindness of their hearts? Market share is fucking lucrative, and whether they intend it or not that is a powerful and politically fraught move. They only get away with it because of the ideology of “doing good”.

But lets say they *are* doing it purely out of the kindness of their sweet-little hearts – what kind of market advantage do you think they’ll get by not having to pay the Woolies/Coles shelfspace fee? That’s going to fuck with other business owners business and their ability to operate?

Are you getting the unspoken message yet: BOOOO look at all those selfish yucky business owners who are doing NOTHING for the world except making money for themselves *tisk tisk tisk*. This is some next level shit.

This kind of thing is so insidious. Just looking over the above, it takes fucking pages and pages of explanation to unpack why all this bullshit is so fucking odious, and even my attempt at an explanation will probably fail to convince most people, who will get so hung up on “doing GOOD” and the POSITIVITY of the message. And at the end of the day everyone working at ThankYou Water will still go home and feel good about what they’re doing, safe in the knowledge that they, and only they, are the TRUE spirit of capitalist generosity.

Edit: Cameron Kunzelman reminds me of this Zizek video which, honestly, is probably the precise place I started to think about these ideas.

Eve Sedgwick on Paranoia

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on paranoia, one of the best things I’ve read recently and which I’ll be incorporating into a chapter for sure. If you want to understand much of what goes on, both online and off, and particularly to do with activism, then look to understand paranoia:

The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se including both epistemophilia and scepticism.

The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates, paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known. …the temporal progress and regress of paranoia are, in principle, infinite.

…No time could be too early for one’s having-already-known, for its having-already-been-inevitable, that something bad would happen. And no loss could be too far into the future to need to be preemptively discounted.

Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only by immitation. Paranoia propses both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first – to myself.

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. …What may be even more important is how severely the memeticism of paranoia circumscribes its potential as a medium of political or cultural struggle.

Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practise, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se – knowledge in the form of exposure. Maybe that’s why paranoid knowing is so inescapably narrative. Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.

From Chapter 4 of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, pp. 130-131, and 138.

Enter the vandalists

Just reminding myself of these two great blog posts: Enter the Vandalists, and Enter The Vandalists Pt II:

A Weekend of Vandalism in New York

The vandalist is recognizable as the most obnoxious brat conjurable in society’s collective imagination. These Bart Simpsons struck once again this past weekend, pranking the Left and their enemies on multiple occasions in a joyous effort to devalorize everything it holds sacrosanct.

They started on Friday night by crashing a party held by the multinational corporation Verso, an enterprise which has made its fortune by cornering the market on socialist-oriented literature. While the paper they sell contains words arguing for revolt against the commodity form, they themselves ruthlessly defend it using lawyers, security guards, Zizekians, and other such police to prevent unauthorized consumption of their product. Such was the case when Verso lawyers sent a cease and desist notice to the beloved AAAARG.org, a website that hosts free PDFs of critical theory, putting Verso in the same category as the MPAA, RIAA, DOJ, and all other litigious enemies of free cultural exchange.

Morozov, Graeber’s “diversity of tactics”, and Technological Justice

So I mentioned on Facebook today viz. Morozov’s somewhat unhinged and vitriolic twitter stream that I’m increasingly unwilling to denounce people for simply taking different tactical approaches to the same (or same enough) issue, specifically referencing (what I mistakenly called) Graeber’s “plurality of tactics”. The phrase was actually “a diversity of tactics” and it comes not directly from Graeber, but he relays it in his work and holds to it as something of an important principle. I thought that I would provide a relevant excerpt from his works that explains what it is and why it’s important in some more detail.

This quite long passage is from his latest The Democracy Project, which is very unconventionally structured, but absolutely worth wading through some of the early stuff that might not interest more philosophically inclined readers. The following passage is from pp.144-146 of The Democracy Project.

In one of the great ironies of history, the invocation of the spirit of Ghandi and Martin Luther King became the prime means of justifying the newfound militarization of American society, in a way that would surely have left either man, had they been alive to witness it, both astounded and horrified. Occupy is an extraordinarily nonviolent movement. It may well be the most nonviolent movement of its size in American history, and this despite the absence of peace codes, marshals, or official peace police. In the fall there were at least five hundred occupations, with participants representing remarkably diverse philosophies, from evangelical Christians to revolutionary anarchists, and thousands of marches and actions – and yet the most “violent” acts attributed to protesters were four or five acts of window-breaking, basically less than one might expect in the wake of one not particularly rowdy Canadian hockey game. Historically this is an extraordinary achievement. Yet has it ever been treated as such? Instead, the handful of windows themselves became a moral crisis. In the immediate wake of evictions, when Americans first had the opportunity to process the full extent of what had happened – the mass arrests, the beatings, the systematic destruction of homes and libraries – the liberal blogosphere was instead almost completely dominated by arguments about a piece called “The Cancer in Occupy,” written by a former New York Times reporter turned OWS supporter named Chris Hedges, who argued that two incidents of window-breaking in Oakland were actually the work of a violent and fanatical anarchist faction called “the Black Bloc,” and that the most important thing the movement could do ws to expose and exclude such elements lest they provide a pretext for police. The fact that almost no statement in the piece was factually accurate (Black Blocs are in fact a formation, not a group, and probably 95 percent of occupations hadn’t even seen one) only seemed to give everyone more excuse to argue about it. Before long, liberal commentators had formed a consensus that the real problem with Occupy was not any act of actual physical violence that had taken place (these had pretty much all been carried out by police) but the fact that some occupations contained elements that, while they had not committed any acts of violence, felt that acts of damage to property could be justified. To give a sense of the disparity: even in new York in March, there was still endless discussion of a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist associated with a Black Bloc in Oakland during a march in November; as a result, there was virtually no discussion of the first OWS-associated window-breaking in New York itself, which occurred on March 17. The window in question – it was a shop window in lower Manhattan – was broken by an NYPD officer using an activist’s head.

Just to give a sense of how perverse this invocation of Ghandi to justify state violence really is, we might recall the words and actions of Ghandi himself. For most anarchists, Ghandi is an ambivalent figure. On the one hand, his philosophy drew heavily on the anarchism of Tolstoy and Kropotkin. On the other, he embraced a kind of masochism of puritanism and encouraged a cult of personality whose implications can only be profoundly inimical to the creation of a truly free society. But he also insisted that passive acquiescence to an unjust order was even worse. I remember one conference on OWS at the New School in New York in the wake of evictions, where liberal pacifists kept reminding organisers that Ghandi had gone so far as “suspending his Quit India campaign when there was an incidence of violence.” What they didn’t mention was that the incident in question involved Ghandi’s own followers having twenty-two police officers to pieces and setting fire to the remains. It seems a pretty safe guess that if members of, say, Occupy Cleveland or Occupy Denver were discovered to have carved large numbers of police officers limb from limb, our movement would have stopped dead in its tracks as well, even without a charismatic leader to tell us to. In a world where such things were possible, the idea that Ghandi himself would have become worked up over a couple of broken windows is nothing short of insane. In fact, as a politician, Ghandi regularly resisted demands that he condemn those who engaged in more militant forms of anticolonial resistance – that is, even when they were not part of his movement. Even when it was a matter of guerrillas blowing up trains, he would always note that while he believed nonviolence was the correct approach, these were good people trying to do what they believed to be the right thing. While opposing injustice non-violently, he insisted, is always morally superior to opposing it violently, opposing injustice violently is still morally superior to doing nothing to oppose it at all.

So while it might seem to be a bit of a stretch to say that Morozov is resisting injustice in his work, I really do think there’s some element of what he’s doing that is (and doesn’t think help to make sense of why he’s so vitriolic – to see him as someone arguing for technological justice). Our language and thinking is profoundly captured at present by the discourses and entire ways of thinking  (Morozov uses the Foucaultian phrase ‘episteme’) around technology, and there is an element of injustice to this: we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we are doing monumentally terrible acts to both ourselves and the ecosystems that support us, all in the name of technology, progress, economic growth, and a reasonable rate of return. That’s why I’m unwilling to join in the choruses of “Morozov is unhinged,” and “Morozov is mentally ill,” or whatever – at least he’s doing something and not even in a particularly violent way (except in a more abstract, verbally abusive way). He’s still working, I believe, for technological justice and I still think he’s trying to do good.

Incidentally, the phrase “a diversity of tactics” was a call put out by a Direct Democracy group during an action in the year 2000, and I encountered the phrase in Graeber’s ethnography of same on pp.6-7 of Direct Action: An Ethnography.

David Graeber on Ethnography

Taken from the Preface to his 2009 book ‘Direct Action, An Ethnography’ all about the 2000/2001 protests and riots against the WTO, etc., pages vii-viii:

Call this book, then, a tribute to the continued relevance of ethnographic writing. By “ethnographic writing,” I mean the kind that aims to describe the contours of a social and conceptual universe in a way that is at once theoretically informed, but not, in itself, simply designed to advocate a single argument or theory. There was a time when the detailed description of a political or ceremonial or exchange system in Africa or Amazonia was considered a valuable contribution to human knowledge in itself. This is no longer really the case. An anthropologist actually from Africa or Amazonia, or even some parts of Europe, might still be able to get away with writing such a book. Presently, the academic convention in America (which a young scholar would be unwise to ignore) is that one must pretend one’s description is really meant to make some larger point. This seems unfortunate to me. For one thing, I think it limits a book’s potential to endure over time. Classic ethnographies, after all, can be reinterpreted. New ones-however fascinating-rarely present enough material to allow this; and what there is tends to be strictly organized around a specific argument or related series of them.

 …

Anarchists and direct action campaigns do not exist to allow some academic to make a theoretical point or prove some rival’s theory wrong (any more than do Balinese trance rituals or Andean irrigation technologies), and it strikes me as obnoxious . to suggest otherwise.

The differential gear, explained

Watch the following video, there’s a lot to unpack beyond the sheer impressiveness of explaining complex engineering:

The most amazing thing to me is its tacit expectation about the audience’s ability to comprehend. This is seriously complicated engineering and it shows. Particularly worth noting, as Michael pointed out on the Facebook post about it I made, is the moment when the narrator speaks the name of the gear at 1:18 – you can hear the pride in his voice, and it is appropriate pride. This is an incredible achievement and to the uninitiated feels something like breaking the fundamental rules of space and geometry once comprehension sets in. Completely understandable, yet also inspiring of awe and wonder… is this video an act of carpentry? (The fact that this is an edit of a longer video that cuts out some irrelevant introductory material suggests that it might be.)

In spite of its obvious complexity the producers have enough faith in the ability of their audience to comprehend it, so long as it is explained sufficiently well. This is truly mind blowing to the modern viewer, and I couldn’t help seeing it as something of an indictment of the contemporary lack of faith in audiences that many (even most?) producers have (with the HBO-types the exception). Granted, the 1950s had their own share of stultifuyingly cut-rate explanations, but even these completely boneheaded simplifications had their own child-like naiveté or innocence about them. See the bewilderingly horrible/laughable 1950s “educational” video on homosexuality for an example which, while remaining utterly, contemptibly wrong in its understanding and explanation of the causes of paedophilia (wrongly attributing it to homosexual deviance), still comes at it from a place of unacknowledged ignorance instead of from a position of condescension and low-regard for its audience.

Consider: what contemporary producer would dare to show minutes at a stretch of nothing but moving mechanical parts, along with the clear, methodical narrated precision of an engineering textbook? No one would take the risk, perpetually terrified as they are that their audience would switch over to MTV or something with more flashing lights, more naked flesh – less challenging fare. Almost no one has the same faith in their material, either.

And why should they? The technical feats most richly rewarded in the 21st century are not those that overcome tricky engineering problems in ingenious ways, but instead those that overcome tricky economic problems. The kind (and amount) of mental work that goes into being able to imagine the solution to the problem presented by car wheels moving at different rates is certainly more impressive than the work involved with structuring debts and investments; the kind of actuarial acumen involved with making stacks of cash. And the trouble is, outside of the small class of economically literate people, no one even cares that you made a hundred million dollars in collateralized debt obligations last month. No one cares in the slightest, because it’s just not that impressive. There’s no pride in being a part of the grifter class (as Matt Taibbi has labelled it) that hoovers up cash like it’s going out of fashion.

So it is a complicated kind of takeaway – the way impressive mental feats of creativity involved in science and engineering (after all, what is engineering but imagining-into-being something never before envisaged) have few contemporary friends. Along with the desuetude from taking pride in suitable feats (like the differential gear) a kind of ‘boosterism’ has arisen to take its place. Think of the obsessive elevation of science and engineering (the raising of the LHC to the status of icon or idol is typical) as an attempt to recapture some of this lost pride, but instead it falls completely flat by virtue of overreaching. Carl Sagan’s studious and sober appraisals are far more compelling than the obsessive hype of contemporary emulators like Brian Cox.

Jacques Ellul has a thesis that whatever force destroys the power of the sacred takes on that mantle of being sacred itself, for obviously this foce of desecration is more powerful. Ellul argued that technology took the place of religion, which it demystified and deserated, but perhaps that image is incomplete. Perhaps it was engineering technology that did so. Presently, it seems that financial technology (‘financial instruments‘) might be following the same dynamic.

Sorry clever engineering, you’re just not making enough cash to be impressive…