Rhetorical Questions

Initial responses to my off-hand reference to an analytic/persuasive divide in the critical videogame blogosphere ranged from incomprehension to ardent agreement, and even a blog post ‘In defence of trolling’ (about which I’m still not sure how to respond other than to say I’m flattered the author thought my ideas worth responding to). In my post I attempted to lay out the case for a detrimental propensity towards the analytic in the critical videogame blogosphere. But I don’t want to labour that particular point – I have no axe to grind against anyone interested in analysing videogames in whichever terms produce the most productive and interesting results.

Instead I’d like to argue the immanent need for an addition of videogame writing unconstrained by a slavish or misplaced adherence to analysis and criticism, a writing much more interested in exploring the rhetorics of persuasion. After laying out what I think is the case for this assessment I’ll go on to point towards some examples of both to help make clear the differences between these two otherwise superficially similar approaches.

The difference was highlighted for me recently by Graham Harman’s defence of the rhetorical flourishes and cognitive poetics of ‘continental’ philosophy vs. its dry, ‘analytic’ counterpart. According to Harman,

For the analytics the great enemies of human thought are fuzziness, non sequiturs, lack of clarity, poetic self-indulgence, and insufficiently precise terminology. I disagree with this threat assessment. In my view these are all relatively minor problems in comparison with shallowness, false dichotomies, lack of imagination, robotic chains of reasoning, and the aggressive self-assurance that typifies analytic philosophers at their worst. (Prince of Networks, p.167)

Harman is responding to allegations levelled by fellow philosopher Quentin Meillassoux that a particular argument about the nature of the human/world correlate (basically an argument over whether anything at all can be accessed separate from how it exists to us, that is, subjectively) is one based on a rhetorical trick rather than a substantive or logical argument. Harman’s disagreement stems from seeing the value in rhetoric that goes beyond an adherence to air-tight, steely logical reasoning – a point that is as close as may well be the main point of difference between ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. Harman turns to Alfred North Whitehead for assistance in disassembling Meillassoux’s argument. Whitehead diagnoses an unhealthy influence on philosophy coming from mathematics, and Whitehead being both a philosopher and mathematician in his time, would be one to know:

…the primary method of mathematics is deduction; the primary method of philosophy [by contrast] is descriptive generalization. Under the influence of mathematics, deduction has been foistered upon philosophy as its standard method, instead of taking its true place as an auxiliary mode of verification whereby to test the scope of generalities. (Whitehead in Prince of Networks, p.169)

For Harman, as I noted in my initial fêting of the idea, “Rhetoric is not the devious art of non-rational persuasion, but the best tool we have for exposing the unstated assumptions that lie behind any surface proposition.” (p.169) Under the influence of mathematics, philosophy has been pressured into conforming to “robotic chains of reasoning” that do little to capture the background reality of a given situation. An interesting point, certainly, but perhaps you are far from ready to diagnose the same issue within videogame writing; if so the connection should soon become clear. A last final quotation from Harman sums up the analytic misstep:

…To say that philosophy is built of arguments is like saying that architecture is a matter of arranging steel girders. It is certainly true that no building can stand with faulty engineering, but there are many ways to arrange steel beams and make them stand. (p.168)

The pieces are now starting to assemble – we have an argument over objectivity and subjectivity; a machine-like adherence to deduction; and a mistake about the nature of a discipline. I’ll borrow another technique Harman uses frequently and address them at length in numerical order:

1. First, ask yourself what is still the number one issue to overcome when writing about games? Is it not the question about objective and subjective reading and response, a question which even though temporarily resolved so frequently reasserts itself with the exhausting predictability of a jack-in-the-box? Why is it that so much writing about games seems timid and content, afraid to reach for the really interesting, the really ambitious arguments that are lying just out of reach of any mere ‘objective’ assessment of the facts? It takes real courage to stretch beyond the realm of pure analysis, beyond assembling a case from ‘facts’, and create an argument that, while perhaps not airtight, contains a seed of inner truth.

Some have succeeded in this area and I will name a few of them here: Tom Bissell frequently reaches lofty peaks in his arguments and while many may (and do) disagree with him, if a reader holds any sympathy at all to the logical base or seed of truth within his reasoning they will not leave unconvinced. Reading Bissell feels like watching the constructing of a mountain of prose that, while often precarious, is never droll or unpersuasive.

I also think Tim Rogers takes a very similar approach, starting from the same intuitive understanding perhaps, even though I personally dislike his style. Rogers’ frequent attempts to build higher mountains than even Bissell comes from with a more ad-hoc, ‘quality through sheer quantity’ approach; a “brute force” philosophy of persuasion. In that regard, I greatly respect his commitment and determination while harbouring little desire to emulate his style.

Jonathan McCalmont is also most commonly found writing in the persuasive or ‘continental’ style. As the author of the blog post I mentioned earlier questions, “Isn’t reading Dead Space as a metaphor for Capitalist Realism perhaps stretching the analysis a bit too far?” Yes, but since the results are so wonderfully imaginative, producing such strange and succulent fruits I want to do more than just nod along approvingly; I want to evangelise it from the rooftops! This is what we should be doing! This is he kind of writing that will convince people (convince ourselves, even) that videogames can actually matter. And before anyone accuses me of it, the continental or persuasive approach does not require, nor result in, a kind of vacation from reality or the truth. Much as analysis does not equate to ‘criticism’, a mere marshalling of the facts plain and simple does not equate to ‘the truth’ either.

Again – no argument here is ever certain and therein lies much of the beauty. Certainty does not resolve itself into the truth, or even always to validity, and I feel that is a crucial mistake we game critic/writer types so often make at our own peril. It’s why in the past I’ve been reactionary regarding some attempts at defining terms. Certainty, definitiveness; these are not, and should not be our goals here. We should listen when Harman cautions us that, “the analytic contempt for rhetoric and metaphor must not be emulated – not just because this attitude leads to boring results, but because it is philosophically false.” (p.169)

2. Next, ask yourself which discipline has been the most foundational and integral to the development of videogames up to the current? Is it not computer science – that tragic mix of mathematics, science and technology that attempts to relentlessly stamp out errant belief in fudging rules with respect to discrete bits and bytes? I don’t blame the computer scientists for foisting onto us an unhealthy reliance on concreteness, definitiveness and finitude – it’s more our fault for letting them.

Like Whitehead for philosophy and mathematics, I feel quite strongly that videogame writing and criticism has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by technologists in the computer sciences. Yes, just because we can point to a very certain fact about a videogame based on discrete bits of data (“The change in sniper rifle reload time had X effect”) does not in anyway mean we should be building arguments about meaning or affect from them. The main way, I think, games writing has tried to escape from the tyranny of this issue has been through New Games Journalism. But sadly this turn follows a similar retreat in philosophy!

When science began to come to grips with explanations for the world, philosophy lost its traditional object to work on and shrank inwards, confining its scope to the human realm of inner experience. This project reached its seemingly final conclusion with the correlationist argument (about which Meillassoux and Harman are mentioned above arguing) that, as humans, we are unable to escape the confines of our nature and existence as subjects. “There can be no access to the world as it is in-itself, but only as it is for-us” asserts the correlationist. Suffice to say, you won’t find many correlationists maintaining this position when faced with the pressing reality of mortar rounds air bursting overhead – and while that fact is not perhaps a ‘logical’ or analytical argument against its veracity, instead a rhetorical one, it is hardly less valid for that fact. (For a more ‘logical’ advancement of an argument against the correlationist position, however, see Meillasoux’s first chapter in After Finitude.)

Harman tells us that a well built rhetorical argument “…still performs genuine cognitive labour.” (Prince of Networks, p.170) The point of a rhetorical argument, he reminds us, is not to poke a logical hole in any given position but “…by suggesting both the need for new options and the possibility of new options” the rhetorical statement does “real cognitive work” (p.171). In Harman’s context as a teacher of philosophy he informs us that even raising the possibility of alternatives “often has a profound philosophical effect on listeners, opening countless new doors and windows” (p.172).

3. I am hoping that by having raised alternative possibilities in the reader’s mind that I can now proceed to persuade you that many of our collective assumptions about the nature of criticism, and videogame criticism in particular, are wrong. We are not out to build an argument, we are out to persuade. We are not out to prove anything, and we should for the most part give up trying. About Philosophy, Harman tells us that Whitehead himself stressed,

…the inability of arguments, propositions, explicit evidence, or tangible qualities to do justice to the world. As Marshall McLuhan might say, to claim that a philosophy is made of arguments is like saying that an apple is nothing but a bundle of qualities – that there is nothing more to the apple than the sum of its explicit traits. (p.175)

For too long we have ignored the cognitive and textual dimension of the aspect of writing and blogging about games, and to our detriment. We can no longer lean on the essay format blog post as a crutch. It is for the slow realisation of this fact that we are seeing the proliferation of writing about games spill out of the blogosphere and into such places as the pages of the excellent KillScreen Magazine and things like Matthew Kumar’s .exp ‘zine. The rhetorical power of print itself over the irresistible mutability of blogs is probably doing more for games criticism than 1,000 posts by Michael Abbott, Mitch Krpata, David Carlton, Leigh Alexander or myself.

Similarly, beyond the form itself, the form of the content (i.e. words) needs to be addressed – as I said, the essay format needs shaking up. How many blog posts about one aspect or feature of a videogame have you read recently that lamely finished a half -second early? I encounter this kind of post all the time, and will readily confess to doing exactly the same in innumerable posts of my own.

Just this past week I read two that did exactly this – and I’m being very unfair to these excellent authors that I am picking on, for which I apologise – the first by Laura Michet at Second Person Shooter comparing the social unacceptability of climbing on low furniture to climbing in Assassins Creed. Reading that particular piece I reached the end and experienced a frustration that could have sent me screaming. “Is that it?!” I wanted to shout. It is this tragic early conclusion of an otherwise potentially stunning and truly courageous argument that I am critiquing here. The analysis is all there – Michet labels it ‘revelation-analysis’ which is as good a name for it as any, yet it ends right at the point of ‘revelation’ when it could have gone on to form an argument about… something. I no longer want to be conveyed information, I want to be persuaded.

The second post was by Jorge Albor of the prodigious Experience Points blog. ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ opens with such a promising premise – an examination of the unstated background assumptions of Civilization V’s Barbarians. A target better suited to some rhetorical elaboration I could hardly imagine. Albor assembles the facts like a curios botanist might overturn a moss covered rock to see what grows underneath, and the facts are indeed worth assembling and investigating, however, Albor closes out the post before taking down any notes on what he finds under there. It finishes before reaching anything like its full potential. Much of the blame for this occurrence I place squarely at the foot of the blog format. It is hardly ideal for the effective persuasion of an audience, as a number of studies of the ‘ideal’ blog post have found. But it is the medium we have chosen to work with, so we must find a way to make it work, or else forever lose the title of ‘critics’.

Before I close, I would like to point to a couple of pieces of game criticism that have successfully gone beyond analysis and deployed persuasion and rhetoric effectively in different ways. Mitch Krpata utilizes visual rhetoric in ‘Using the Sniper Rifle in Killzone 2: A photo tutorial’. Through a few minimalist panels Krpata conveys more about the controls of that game, immediately imparting the frustrations and absurd complexity of using the Sniper Rifle in that game. The extremely short post persuades better than some vitriolic ten thousand word essay describing the same issues in excruciating detail. Equally, that very method is as mentioned above the modus operandi of Tim Rogers. I don’t have a favourite example to link to, but his Kotaku piece ‘Lets Talk About Jumping’ is a good demonstration of his approach.

Tom Bissell has a book, Extra Lives, that is filled with examples of beatific rhetoric and effective persuasion that, to my mind, demonstrates the importance and validity of the approach better than this already lengthy blog post probably ever could. For examples on the internet, try his contribution to the Slate end of year discussion, or better still, his Extra Lives extract published in the UK’s Observer newspaper.

Funnily enough, Jonathan McCalmont told me he was actually trained in the analytic school of philosophy yet he ends up reaching the persuasive position I am upholding here through a double focus: firstly on thoroughly researched topics driven to their extreme conclusion, and secondly by maintaining an unswerving commitment to the bigger picture. From examining the connection between consumerism as self-identification and role-playing game item collection; to ‘The Changing Face of The American Apocalypse’ which is a smart dissection of cultural and political shifts that are working themselves out in videogame spaces. Even when he’s reaching, as some have suggested, his arguments are worth examining for the ‘cognitive work’ they do to expose background assumptions.

Lastly, a thick layer of dust has settled over Dustin Gunn’s ‘Indie Gaming Bingo’, a blog that more effectively skewered indie gaming tropes than any other source. By utilizing the bingo card trope, Gunn disarmed visitors to his site through humour and persuaded readers of the over-use of piano music and the platforming genre in Indie Games. He also did more to undermine the often too-serious tone that indie games can often get trapped into.

To close, I will recapitulate the points I want to get across in this leviathan post: 1. the nature of the subjective reading/response argument gives us urgent and powerful clues about the nature of argument, discussion and persuasion as they apply to games criticism, 2. the conviction of computer scientists of the cold certainty of facts should not be shared by videogame critics, bloggers, and writers, and, 3. having raised the first two points, I think it is now much more likely to be agreed that not only are alternatives to sheer analysis possible, but that they are also crucially important for the development of the field of game criticism. The elaboration of revelatory facts and interesting information has carried us far, but is no longer enough. Whatever form of rhetoric it takes, the earnest persuasion of our audience should be our immediate and pressing concern.

– Ben Abraham, December 19th, 2010

In Print: KillScreen

image courtesy Daniel Purvis

So in the middle of moving house this past week, I nearly forgot to mention that I received a copy of my first ever published piece of writing. It’s paired up with the simply amazing photography of Daniel Purvis, who went to quite an effort to go out into the landscape I was writing about and get them. Reflecting on his road-trip, Purvis encapsulates a valuable point:

If you want to experience Australia, you can’t just look at a photograph, you need to move through it – preferably at high speeds in a reliable car with air-conditioning and a copy of Unkle’s ‘War Stories’ drowning out the engine.

Which, unfortunately, is an aspect that I think doesn’t come across in my actual piece – the aesthetic and kinesthetic experience of playing FUEL. I managed to cram a lot of historical context into the piece, which I’m really proud of (and everyone should absolutely read Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore if they found even one jot of it interesting – he does a much better job that I), but I’m not sure if I conveyed any of the actual sense of what it’s like to play the game. But maybe that’s not such a huge problem – if the point of my piece is to sneakily teach some Australian history related through the device of a videogame, then I’ve met my goal.

But I’ve been thinking lately about what is the goal with videogame ‘criticism’, or whatever it is that I usually end up doing when I write about games. And I’m beginning to think that it’s time for a new goal. We’ve been analytic, we’ve made plenty of strong, logical arguments about games function and role, both particular and general, but we’ve never exactly been… persuasive. And here’s the key difference – ‘logical’ does not equate to ‘persuasive’. That’s a key point I’m taking away from Graham Haman’s Prince of Networks at the moment (which I’m nearing the end of). I’ll avoid spoiling any future essays I write about the issue, but here’s a key point from Harman. He’s talking here about the differences between Analytic and Continental philosophy, but I’m thinking that the same divide could be applied to videogame writing and criticism (but with much more lopsided an equation):

“For [Alfred North] Whitehead, as for me, any statement of a philosophical argument is always an oversimplification not just of the world as a whole, but even of what the statement itself discusses. Rhetoric is not the devious art of non-rational persuasion, but the best tool we have for exposing the unstated assumptions that lie behind any surface proposition. The analytic contempt for rhetoric and metaphor must not be emulated – not just because this attitude leads to boring results, but because it is philosophically false.” Harman, Prince of Networks, p.169

To apply the same point to videogames, ‘we’ are exceptionally good at the analytic mode and extremely poor at the rhetorical persuasion. As a cohort, we’re remarkably analytical. There are not many writers, bloggers, critics, etc of videogames who are either committed to the persuasive communication of the veracity of their feelings, moods, and strange hunches about videogames, but there sure is a lot of people willing to point out the textual or dramaturgical features of XYZ latest game. I’m beginning to think that a) we’ve got enough of that sort of analysis, and b) that it’s not really getting us anywhere we particularly would like to go anyway.

But we’ll come back to that. Go check out Daniel Purvis’ excellent photos and pick up a copy of KillScreen Issue #2 to read the full article about common visual landscape of FUEL and the Australian Outback.

Mereology; The infinitesimal; Radiohead

Mereology is the study or philosophy of parts and wholes. i.e. In what ways is my toenail a ‘part’ of me and when is it not? What is a ‘me’ and what is a ‘toenail’? How about time? How is some part of time joined to the ‘whole’ of time as it exists? Are the connections straightforward, sliceable into infinitely small sections or does it work some other way? What about space? How small a part of space can we drill down to and find out about how it acts and relates to all the other parts of space?

The Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great entry on mereology, which helps explain some of the terms. Graham Harman’s reading of Latour as a philosopher or metaphysician results in an ‘object oriented philosophy’ that can help with these kinds of questions. It’s also has the best answers for most of them I’ve encountered, despite being often counter-intuitive.

Related to the above questions is the issue of The Infinitesimal. Can we actually get infinitely small in relation to time and space, or are there hard limits to the universe? The desire for a hard-bottom is entirely understandable, as any such discovery would lend an absoluteness and equivalence to any statement or research or analysis. Disciplines would be eradicated overnight as everyone rushed to build the necessary frameworks to start analysing everything from ‘culture’ to ‘love’ to thermodynamics in light of this new ultimate substance. The jury is still out on whether any such ‘substance’ or floor to the universe exists. For Latour (a bit of a post-structuralist in this sense) his unresolved relationism means that there is never a ‘bottom’ to the universe, or indeed anything – it’s networks all the way down, and yet his actor-network theory still ‘works’.

The domain of mathematics has employed the infinitesimal, however,  for everything from calculus to some things I’ve never even heard of before. According to Wiki, “In common speech, an infinitesimal object is an object which is smaller than any feasible measurement, hence not zero size, but so small that it cannot be distinguished from zero by any available means.” This is interesting because it means that there is still a difference between the infinitesimal and the nothing. The degree of that difference is on an unimaginably diminished scale, but it remains the same category of difference as the difference between 1 and 0; between chocolate cake and an empty plate; between something and nothing.

Finally, if you are determined to hold onto a mereology based on ‘common sense’, how do you deal with gaps? When does a gap disappear? How close do things need to get before the distance between them is nil (not infinitesimal, mind)? And when that gap disappears, do two become one, and what is that new one? If it takes two things to become completely one for a gap to disappear, how does anything act on anything else except at a distance? Perhaps certain things can act ‘in part’ on other things, but then which object does that part which is acting belong to? One, the other, or both? I hope you’re getting the picture that these distinctions are increasingly untenable. Common sense has deserted us, leaving behind only a confusion of actors and associations.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sung about this kind of confusion in the song ‘Where I end and you being’. Ostensibly about relationship difficulty arising from bridging that gap,  I think it still addresses the same issue at heart. It’s a strange world out there on the borders between things – it’s a place where:

The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end and you begin

An Exhausted Blogosphere

Last time we looked at the early period of the videogame blogosphere as Dan Golding’s blog post ‘Mapping the Brainysphere’ and I both saw it emerging, and we also looked at the forces of formation from an Actor Network Theory perspective. One of the things that ANT turns on its head is the idea of actor’s endurance – for Latour and his Actor Network Theory, it’s not change, decay or instability that is the phenomena in need of explaining, but instead it is endurance and stability of any actor or object that needs accounting for.

That said; let’s first look at the blogs from Dan Golding’s original list of 29 blogs and look at which ones have closed down. In other words, who has ‘left’ the blogosphere since Jan 1st, 2009?

Blogs from Mapping the Brainysphere that have either closed, abandoned or been semi-abandoned:

Graffiti Gamer
Elements of Meaning
Man Bytes Blog
Noble Carrots
The Autumnal City
Banana Pepper Martinis
Hit Self-Destruct
Versus Clu Clu Land
Game Culture Journal
The Game Critique
The New Gamer
Writers Cabal
Gamer Quest
8-bit Hacks
Ordinary Swords
Words on Play

More than half, in fact 21 of the 29 blogs Dan Golding identified in January of 2009 have been closed or effectively abandoned. With few exceptions these people have not gone away. Instead they’ve moved to twitter (and/or Facebook). Spencer Greenwood of Noble Carrots; Kirk Battles of Banana Pepper Martinis; The New Gamer writers; Sande Chen & Anne O’Toole of Writers Cabal; and the author of the GamesLaw blog are the only authors from this list to have left the blogosphere altogether. Most have merely migrated to one or other social media platform. More on that in a minute.

The above list, however, doesn’t include many of the other blogs which I would also include as important to the blogosphere at about the same time, and many of those blogs have closed down too. Here’s a second list of semi-abandoned or closed blogs, but of those that weren’t around or weren’t included in Dan Golding’s initial list:

Lyndon Warren’s Digital Kicks
Brilliam of Brill.iam Writes
Matthew Kaplan’s Game In Mind
DemonicMurry’s Graduate School Gamer
Chris Plante & co. HardCasual.Net
Manveer Heir’s Design Rampage
Michael Walbridge’s No More Gamers Anymore
Daniel Bullard-Bates and CT Hutt Press Pause to Reflect
David Sahlin Tracking the Nordic Ninja
Mike Schiller Unlimited Lives
Christopher Hyde’s 25timesasecond

All of these blogs have closed or been semi-abandoned. These two lists are hardly comprehensive, but it’s tempting to interpret the picture it paints as a bleak emptying of the blogosphere of some of its most talented contributors. But realistically, this is all quite natural and predictable. It takes considerable means and motivation to maintain a blog for multiple years and people change positions, careers and interests all the time. And yet, there seems to be another, hidden force at work behind this list – namely, twitter.

The first time I got an inkling that a change was taking place in the blogosphere, with the community mainly moving away from blogs and onto twitter,  was over a year ago. It was through a conversation that happened (where else) on twitter, initiated by Steve Gaynor. Gaynor, whose blog Fullbright closed just recently, tweeted to Michael Abbott a question about the state of the blogosphere. In reverse order, here is the series of tweets I uncovered from the vaults of twitter history that sparked the minor furore over the fate and direction of the critical videogame blogosphere.

The conversation that spun out from those few tweets happened as people saw the comments and variously agreed and disagreed, and discussed the factors influencing the blogosphere and its rate of production. It spun out into a multi-threaded conversation involving many twitter accounts, and it’s likely that no one was following all of them at once. Given the technical limitations of Twitter, reconstructing the whole of the conversation(s) is also a significant challenge.

One of the common themes that seemed to crop up in those discussions (and the subsequent discussions on the same topic that seem to flare up on twitter regularly) was that twitter seemed to have subsumed some of the role played by blogs in the early blogosphere. Most recently, Mitch Krpata tweeted at me on September 16th saying “Twitter is why nobody blogs anymore”. He was responding to a piece I wrote about the distasteful neologism ‘replayability’ and its crutch-like nature for games writers.

Mitch distilled the essence of my blog post into one tweet, and I was jokingly dismayed at his ability to do so. I tweeted, “Dammit Mitch, you just showed my post could have been a tweet.” And yet, it’s unlikely that a tweet would have provoked the same reaction from other blogs (including from Kotaku’s Steven Totillo and Game Theory Online’s Nadia Oxford) as the “Replayability is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!” blog post. The change from blogs to twitter is significant. Something is lost or changed or translated when writers move from blog comment threads to twitter. I’m sure Marshall McLuhan would have something to say about all of this.

One of the things that I think results from the move to twitter is exhaustion. In a post on his Insult Swordfighting blog, Mitch Krpata discusses his feeling of being out of sync with the rest of the reviewing consensus on the latest Castlevania game. At the end of the post he mentions finding one review comforting for its similarity to his own. The comments on that particular review were apparently “of the “no offense but you’re an idiot” variety” and according to Krpata, re-open the age-old question, “…of what a game review is supposed to be.” But wasn’t that an issue that was supposed to be settled once and for all by Sean Elliot and co. with his Symposium? Yet the symposium ran out of steam (exhaustion perhaps?), people have moved on and the question goes unresolved until it resurfaces once more with the recurrence of a problematic review or score. It’s a situation to make even Sisyphus proud.

Twitter has reshaped the critical videogame blogosphere, there’s no doubt about that. It’s affected the blogosphere by draining away discussions from the blog posts and comment threads of websites dedicated to hosting the kinds of discussion that was such a hallmark of the early community. It’s also changed the nature of those discussions, by fragmenting them and making them quite temporally fleeting. And lastly, perhaps most importantly, it’s done exactly what we wanted to have happen – it’s opened up the critical videogame blogosphere to just about anyone.

The old adage of ‘careful what you wish for’ applies here, as the cumulative effects of these three pressures has, for better or for worse, killed off much of the sense of a small, tight-knit community that existed in the ‘early days’ of the videogame blogosphere (and I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t a particularly diverse or representative community, but it was quite a close one).

I’ll end on a note of difference between blogs and twitter: One can still go back to posts on blogs from 08 or even 07 and look through the comment threads and that’s increasingly difficult on twitter. At the end of 2009 I attempted a personal archaeology of all the comments I left on the Brainy Gamer blog in 2007 and 2008, and the most interesting aspect of that exercise was realising that all the discussions are still there. Just take a look at the sheer length of comments on this blog post titled ‘We need new stories’ – the length of the comments thread exceeds that of  the post by a whole order of magnitude! That does not and cannot occur on twitter. And even if it did, who but those who were there at the time to see it would know about it? Twitter has been a double edged sword, but figuring out whether the benefits have outweighed the drawbacks is a chimerical task – perhaps even an impossible one. I’d still like to try and approach that goal, however, in my PhD.

A brief Actor Network Theory history of the videogame blogosphere

After a very productive meeting with my PhD supervisor today I want to try distil some of the renewed focus my project has gained.

My PhD project, tentatively called ‘An Actor Network Theory assessment of online community creation’, is all about the critical videogame blogosphere and how it came about.

There’s a bunch of assumptions already present in the title which Actor Network Theory will help me unpack – for starters a massive part of the ‘community’ is its shape and constitution. Who’s “in” and who’s “out”, and that process of contestation will be a big part of the analysis. Case in point – the phrase that was applied to a list of blogs that were all running at similar or related purposes was “The Brainysphere”. The true originator of the phrase is now lost to time and collective memory (I think it may have actually been a Roger Travis invention, and his alternative ‘the middle circle’ remains much more enduring), but it was first deployed with any serious impact by Dan Golding in his “Mapping the Brainysphere: 29 blogs switched-on gamers should read”.

That post, published on January 1st 2009 was part of a general zeitgeist concerned with making the community more accessible, and in particular, easier to find. That zeitgeist culminated, for me, in Critical Distance which has been (with a few notable exceptions) remarkably well received and an overwhelmingly positive development. Incidentally, those notable exceptions are extremely closely tied to the same issues that got Dan Golding and others into some hot water viz. the shape of the community based on the inclusion/exclusion of certain blogs, voices and perspectives from ‘The Brainysphere’. In fact, the word itself was banished from the vocabulary because it served to place (not entirely unfairly, but quite problematically) Michael Abbott and his blog ‘The Brainy Gamer’ at the centre of the videogame blogosphere.

This is all to say that my research project is a case study in applying Actor Network Theory to the videogame blogosphere, and I recently stumbled upon ‘A brief actor network theory history of speculative realism’ by Levi Bryant, a member of the Speculative Realism blogosphere. Now that particular rhizome of bloggers and the history of their formation, oddly enough, quite elegantly mirrors the story I have told above, with a diverse cast of actors deploying their time and effort in interesting and profitable ways. Bryant summarises the happy and unanticipated accidents that brought together the disparate group of bloggers under the umbrella term ‘Speculative Realism’, and it provides a great blueprint for my own (eventually much longer!) take on the formation of the critical videogame blogosphere.

Bryant also mentions in his brief history, a term used by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the tuche. Here’s Bryant explaining the concept:

Now, the tuche or missed encounter refers to the phenomenological structure of anticipation in our cognition. Tuche is that event that happens when one wasn’t anticipating or expecting it. It can be something like getting in a car accident, winning the lottery, meeting the love of your life, or being hit by lightning. The point is that it didn’t fit the structure of anticipation.

And weirdly enough, this idea seemed to have resonance with my previous posts on ‘the tenor of experience’. The tuche seems to fit the bill exactly for the initiating event that serves to kick off the process of an altered tenor of experience.

To put the concept into a practical example: a fortnight ago I very much had no anticipation of finding myself kissing a beautiful young woman, and it’s very tuche-ness threw my sense of regular experience for the following few days. The aftershocks, if you will, are still making themselves known even weeks later in minor and unanticipated ways. Mini-tuche events happening in sympathy to the original, or something like that.

Conversely, when Michael Abbott said in an IRC chat discussion back in early ‘09 “Ben, why don’t you make it happen” (referring to the creation of a website or aggregate portal site that organised and cemented the critical blogosphere, i.e. Critical Distance) I had already anticipated to a degree performing that kind of role. I had not, however, wanted to volunteer feeling as I did as though I were a bit of a minor player in the community.

That early insecurity probably played a big part in some of the early mistakes I made (and which I perhaps continue to make) but the technological environment of the internet itself also had a hand. There is no middle-ground to including or excluding a website in a blogroll or list of ‘must read’ articles – it either ‘makes the cut’ for relevance or it doesn’t, and that at times has placed an unbearable burden on my own judgement. I’m as fallible as anyone, and I’ve failed in that judgement before. I probably will again as I continue Critical Distance, but my failures are amplified by the nature of the technology. To use Latourian vocabulary, the technology is as much a formant of the blogosphere and its formation as I am. The inability for some to recognise that technology itself played a hand (or my inability to communicate this point at the time) caused me no end of grief, and serious personal anguish.

But that insight into the nature of the network that plays out between ‘people’ and ‘the internet’ is what’s driving my PhD project, so I should also be extremely thankful. My PhD research has already taken me to some wonderfully interesting places and I hope that insight or intuition or hypothesis continues to act as such an exemplary guide in future.

The Tenor of Experience

I’ve had a kind of crazy idea for a while now that involves the nature of experience. I’m now quite convinced that experiences come in different varieties and flavours.

Everyone has taken mind (or mood) altering drugs of some kind – caffeine is in just about everything, after all – so we’re reasonably familiar with the concept of being ‘under the influence’. And when things start feeling out of the ordinary, most rational people generally think that something about us has changed, either in our perceptions, our brain chemistry, we’ve gone a bit lunatic or whathaveyou.

But what if the change is not in ourselves but in the actual compositions of the things that make up the experiences we have? I am calling this the ‘tenor’ of experience, and every so often I find myself in circumstances that are so far beyond the expected or the imagined that they have an entirely foreign tenor to them.

The tenor of experience is like a strange new taste in your mouth. It’s like a melody you’ve never heard before that is at once shocking in its familiarity and in its newness. The tenor of experience is the inability to trust your own eyes. The tenor of experience is dream-logic in the real world. The tenor of experience is moonlight flashing off bare skin. The tenor of experience is a touch; it’s a place, and a smell – it’s all of these and more, all at once.

My choice of the word ‘tenor’ here is deliberate, and I think appropriate for the musical connotations it brings. The ‘tenor of experience’ comes with suggestions of shifting into a higher register – if not heightened awareness, then some kind of higher aspect. Music often plays a part in altering the tenor of experience (I find it does) and while brain neuroscience might be able to account for these effects, the science speaks little beyond the conglomeration of effects.

Nothing in my theory of the tenor of experience is to discount the very real effects of mind altered states, but more and more often I’m finding it insufficient to blame these ‘effects’ for the whole range of experience that an altered tenor of experience presents with. As I’m becoming more familiar with Latourian metaphysics and Actor Network Theory the less appealing I am finding the reductive, effect-based answers like ‘it’s just the alcohol talking’ etcetera.

Nothing endures. Everything becomes translated. Beer in the glass becomes translated when it cools, and is translated when it later becomes beer-in-the-stomach. The translation process means nothing is kept in-tact. Nothing endures. Therefore, looking at the end result and pointing to it as the be-all-and-end-all is a bit like looking at a calculus equation before and after integration. You can integrate the equation back to a pre-translated state but you have no access to that intangible ‘constant’ that was lost in the translation process. So I want to step back outside and look at the whole tenor of experience.

If this all comes across a little confused it’s because I’m still feeling the effects of a terrifically altered tenor of experience (involving no illegal drugs, fyi) and writing down this idea is a strategy I am employing in response. If you’ve found anything here at all persuasive, I encourage you to keep the idea of the tenor of experience in mind, see if it’s at all useful in future and let me know. It’s certainly has been useful for me.

Post-script: I just performed a quick google search for the phrase and I’ve clearly not coined an entirely unique one, but I hope my meaning and use of the phrase is ultimately an outstanding one.

Zombies and Hip Hop

When I first saw this trailer for Hilltop Hood’s upcoming DVD release Parade of the Dead I wondered why no one had thought to do something like it sooner. The video seems to be a spoof of the zombie film genre that also functions as a DVD collection of music videos for the Hilltop Hoods songs. It’s an inspired idea, even if the  cross-over between hip hop and zombie films is not completely self evident at first glance. Hip hop and zombie films, I am here to tell you, actually often address quite similar themes.

It’s a reasonably well accepted fact that many Zombie films are meant as subtle (or not so-subtle) critiques of the mindless state of modern urban living. The empty streets of 28 Days Later and the lone figure within them act as a visual metaphor for social isolation and alienation, themes often explicitly addressed in hip hop. The chorus of Sydney hip hop collective The Herd’s song “State of Transit” touches on the impersonal nature of the daily commute:

Same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
You got no time to chit chat, you’ve got a schedule to keep
Shooting straight across the city and your’re dodging the sheep
It’s the same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
One more 24 hour stretch from daylight to dusk and dusk down to desk

In zombie films, we are shown the worst traits in  people and it’s a truism of the genre that at some point friends and travelling companions will turn each other in order to save themselves. The line that ends up on many T-Shirts and stickers notes pithily that, “I don’t have to outrun them; I just have to outrun you”.

The nihilism that often results from the post-zombie-apocalypse world – where the changed-up rhythms of life often drive one to distraction, or worse – can provide the impetus for the kind of brazen egotism we see in zombie films. We often see characters blowing off steam by destroying or damaging things, and watch as they try and come to terms with their new position near-top-of-the-world in the social order (this is by virtue of the fact that there often is no social order anymore). This ‘King of the World’ mentality is one that also finds a foothold in much hip hop culture and music.

It hardly needs demonstrating, but the Sydney group ‘Horrorshow’ tap into this kind of triumphalist egotism in the opening track ‘Uplift’ from 2008’s The Grey Space. It is tempered, however, with a series of sad admissions of weakness and the track is peppered throughout with this duality of egotism and humility. It’s like Solo can’t decide if he’s happy or terrified with his new position as King of the World:

Welcome to the manifesto of a man who stood the test of time…
…In this cold barren land that I call home I’m just a man searching for the strength to walk alone…
…I’m a national icon in the making here to get my vibe on…

The Hilltop Hoods have a song called ‘Fifty in Five’ off the same State of the Art album from which the track at start was taken. It also deals with apocalyptic themes, covering the through-line of horror and atrocity that spattered the latter half of the twentieth century:

Generation X and generation Y,
And the generation next will degenerate and die,
Cause we got holes in the ozone that we put there ourselves,
Now the poles are a no-go, earths cooking itself…

The anger and activism often expressed in hip hop (and Aussie hip hop in particular) is what initially drew me to the genre. The Herd were my first experience with any kind of political engagement that had a strong sense of justice – of right and wrong – which may in fact help explain it’s attractiveness. For a generation of young materialists who have grown up in the shadow of post-modernity and the politics of spin, this kind of certainty around injustices is exactly what we needed. The Herd’s 77% remains the epitome of this angry revolutionary ideal.

Hip hop has a long tradition of sampling from films, which makes the strange Sean of the Dead-like pairing of the Hood’s music and a zombie apocalypse further comprehensible. The DVD, clearly based on their one song ‘Parade of the Dead’ off the State of the Art album, demonstrates in the chorus many of the themes mentioned above. And it should be noted that the setting of the song as implied in the chorus makes the zombies-as-social-critique even more pertinent, with it’s overtones of poor city planning:

They built my city on top of a grave
Now the dead roam the street like a rotting parade
They poured gasoline on top of a lake
And then they set it on fire so nobody escaped

The last section of the final verse leads into the refrain from the bridge section, setting the scene for the reappropriation of the ‘heads shoulders knees and toes’ children’s song. The image seems straight out of the Dawn of the Dead remake where a pair of chainsaw-equipped busses is driven through a crowd of zombies.

…And just for the fun of it, I stole my neighbour’s Hummer
Put spikes out the side and tied a chainsaw to the front of it

I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes
I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes

I’ll conclude with this stunning video tribute to zombie films, set to The Hilltop Hoods ‘Parade of the Dead’. You can’t help but wonder if this video itself didn’t half inspire the upcoming DVD.

“Replayability” is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!

There’s a word that gets bandied about a bit when talking about playing a videogame for a second, third, fourth, or many more times. That word is “replayability”. If you’re not familiar with the word (chances are good if you’re reading this blog that you are, however) go look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Except that it’s not there.

That’s because it’s a non-word and deserves to be treated as such. I.e. not used. At all. “Replayability” merits nothing less than the best and most powerful contempt we can conjure against it. I did a cursory search of my previous blog posts both here and at SLRC and found no mention of the (non) word, to my great relief, and If I ever use it in a piece of writing I herby waive all rights Vis. physical retaliation.

And that’s because “replayability”, if I can be so bold as to use the following phrase in a semi-ironical manner, is what is fucking wrong with videogames.

As a non-word, “replayability” alludes to the hidden, semi-consensually arrived at meaning that has oozed from the lazy pages of the enthusiast press (if someone can point me at the originator of the (non) word I’m paying a fifty). What does the word even mean? To the lay-person unconversant with videogames, it literally means nothing! But perhaps they, for reasons beyond my ken, may wish an attempt at parsing the meaning of “replayability”:

Is it something to do with how replay-able it is? But what does it means to be able to be replayed? What experience in the real world have I had in which the ability to replay something is a feature, measure or aspect I care about?”

The experience in which the complete and utter “noob” will have probably maybe-somehow-possibly-in-the-loosest-sense come close to enjoying/appreciating/valuing the ability to “replay” is rewinding a VHS tape. Or perhaps another close corollary might be the Post-Traumatic Stress sufferer who is forced to “replay” their traumatic event over and over in memory. How does PTSD rate in terms of “replayability”, I wonder?

In other words, the (non) word “replayability”’s lack of any actual meaningful content in effect means that it’s become an indicator of a kind of cultural capital. The existence and dominance of that videogame culture (think male, 18-30, white and middle class) is what is fucking wrong with videogames. It’s basically another special word that “we” have; words like ‘leet’ or ‘pwn’ that serve a special meaning and help keep outsiders on the out.

Okay, that’s fine, you can have your irrelevant culture if you want to, although please don’t expect me to want (or be willing) to endure it with you. But wait, this word gets a run in the fucking academy! Check it out – the Game Studies Journal has four fucking articles that use the (non) word. The latest from this very year. It’s not an anachronism, it’s here and it’s a problem.

Alright, let’s chill and take it on at face value. Replayability – you and me are going to become best buds. What do you actually mean for this ill-defined, nebulous group of consensual readers who know what you mean? What are the authors of you trying to communicate when they say that a game is “replay-able”?

Well, all games are replay-able by definition as a function of their nature as software (with the exception being that game the name of which I forget but which deletes itself if you lose) so usually instead the author means “The game is able to be played again and not have to make all the same choices”. But that won’t suffice as a proper definition either because even the most on-rails interactive-novel-slash-fiction type experience (think Photopia) can be played again with trivially different choices. I highly doubt that’s what most people mean when they use the (non) word “replayability” (SPOILER! Usually they have a very specific meaning in mind and are just using it as a shorthand way of avoiding actually describing what it is they’re talking about END SPOILER).

So how about replayability as: “The ability to play the game again, making different, non-trivial choices”. Close, but I’m still not satisfied.

For what defines the line between trivial and non-trivial? Does the presence of 100 templar flags to collect push it over into the “non-trivial”? What if I played this game once when I was twelve but that’s eleven years ago now and I totally don’t remember it? Does that mean the game possess more of the elusive quality we seem to be calling “replayability”?

Could the answer to that question perhaps be: It depends? Frankly no, I don’t think it could, otherwise the faux-definitive way it gets bandied about (the irony, as it doesn’t even have a definition in a dictionary!) would be exposed as lazy and – dare I say it – completely and utterly devoid of functional meaning?

Could this (non) word actually be employed because authors that use it want a lazy and shorthand way to refer to a series of unrelated yet seemingly connected factors that influence whether someone is willing to endure repeat exposure to a game-type experience? Could some of those factors be ones that do not survive their exposure to the harsh light of objective analysis; do those factors not survive as concrete and measurable qualities that exist in the games themselves?

To recognise this fact would be to finally acknowledge that games are not one-hundred-per-cent whole objects of potential scrutiny, existing in and of themselves, floating in space, and uncaring as to their human interacters. That might mean would could speak about them with much less authority and even less certainty.

So please can we stop fucking using the (non) word “replayability” now?

I said please.

P.S. – This response by Lyndon Warren is fantastic, and I am fully on board with it, except that it still requires consensus about meaning and there is no consensus (I doubt there ever will be) about what ‘replayability’ means. Without an authority to appeal to for adjudication, the meaning of these words will  only ever be argued over. Continuously. Cf. every commenter in this thread.

Words I-V

This is a series of 5 “downloadable” blog posts that form what I’m calling “Words I-V” because each individual post is either Words 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Seems straightforward enough.

The point of them at the time of writing each one was slightly different for each, but they are loosely united by the desire to be as unconscious in my writing as possible; just let is all hang out for all to see; as little self censorship and self guidance as possible. Whether they succeed or they fail as anything else, they each stand on their own. You can read them in order, in reverse order, or no particular order. Not reading them also constitutes some level of engagement with them, since I take it that you are reading this post about them right now and your decision will be to either read or not read them. Unless you decide to read them and then don’t carry through on that decision because you put them on your desktop and never get around to them which is what I have a tendency of doing.

They are things, they exist. Here’s a download link.

If you like them, or even if you hate them, would you please tell me so?

The Judge’s Wig

The Judge's Wig, Yarrangobilly CavesI walked through the cool, dripping heart of a mountain today. It contained an inspiring number of caves filled with stunning white stalactites and stalagmites. A giant cathedral of a space easily 50m high, a room filled with an organ-like series of brilliant white columns, and numerous other chambers along the path were lit by delicate white lights from angles and hidden locations that helped set the spaces in the most majestic and beautiful way possible. A glittering wall of flowing limestone shimmered as one moved, looking so much like a wall of diamond-studded ice. A reflecting pool lit from below revealed the water’s pearlescent aqua colour. Another chamber twenty metres below disappeared into the black earth as the only light cast from the lamps faded into the gloom.

There were a few locations along the path set aside to better view particularly beautiful and sublime formations. At one of these, highlighting a particularly imagination stirring formation was a sign that explained the cave system had been named first been surveyed by a fellow by the name of Oliver Trickett. The sign reads,

He recorded and assigned names to many of the formations. The large orange formation he called “The Judges Wig”; nearby are the “Lambs Fleece” and the “Wedding Cake”. Today we prefer not to use fanciful names for such formations, but to present them for what they are.

Can you feel the exasperated nuisance the writer feels at having to tell the plebs about the irrelevant names given to these beautiful and wondrous formations? Why even tell us what the formation is called if today’s standards prefer to “present it for what it is”, as if one can simply present what A Thing is with one terse piece of scientific rational description. With what authority does the writer of the sign appeal to reality?

Truly, it is a cold and boring “reality” that seeks to replace the descriptive, the subjective, even the fanciful with… I don’t even know! They never say what it supposedly is, except to go on to say that “The orange tints are…due to iron.”

Have you been floored by the persuasive and rhetorical power of this rational description? Iron makes the formation look orange. I am simply in awe of nature.

The totality of the thing labelled The Judges Wig cannot be explained away in simple description by attributes, nor can it rightly be summed up in the “fanciful” name given it by Trickett. But it goes a lot further than any bland, textbook description ever could – it does look considerably like a Judge’s Wig, with a curved central back and columns flowing down the sides from it. I imagine that just knowing it is called “The Judges Wig” conjures more images (and perhaps more interest) in the thing than an attributive description.

The text on the offending sign

You might ask, why pick on the poor National Parks and Wildlife Service sign writer? It’s because I believe that how we describe the world is important and non-trivial, and also because appeals to “reality” as if whatever reality actually is were something self-evident, itself smacks of arrogance, smugness and a lack of imagination. As someone who cares about the natural environment, with an interest in seeing it preserved and human impact upon it mitigated to the greatest possible extent (there’s a larger discussion about the place of humanity within nature that I’m deliberately not addressing here). I want people to be rhetorically persuaded of the importance and value of things like The Judges Wig. Just consider this – it has sat underground for millennia. It has probably gone unobserved for longer than there have been people to observe it. If the scale of that is not humbling, I don’t know what is.

Written on 20th of July while holidaying in the alpine town of Talbingo. Visit the thermal pools.