Saturday, April 13, 2013

Whence came this Animus?

The animus is interesting, a sort of movement towards complete cultural legitimacy for video games, an industry that started very much like the movies as a product to sell to kids and impressionable young adults. Movies have achieved cultural legitimacy. Everyone watches movies and there’s movies out there for everyone to watch. Indie films are a big deal and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an aspiring filmmaker or even just a crew member. Music has achieved cultural legitimacy. Everyone, no matter what gender, how rich or poor, big or small from every culture in the world enjoys some kind of music.

The animus is thus to achieve such widespread appeal and legitimacy that games becomes a thing you can proudly and openly talk about with people around you no matter who they are, since the assumption here is that 1. You can’t already do this and 2. That you can do this with all culturally legitimate things. It’s part of a larger psychographic for “nerds” and the persecution complex therein that I don’t really want to talk about right now.

What I do want to talk about is another discussion that’s recurred lately, the discussion of “what is a game” or usually more accusatorially, “X is not a game.” I’m not going to attempt a genealogy of this one either, (gee I’m telling you what I won’t do a lot. Sorry.) but lately the discussion has cascaded out of the last gdc which was amazing and awesome and really hopeful for a different sort of future in the field of games.

I’m gonna back up again because I want to talk about something that’s a little more relevant to anthropology or really just my life in general. Some basic concepts: academia is a culture. It’s a culture that values argument and knowledge and debate and that sort of thing, but it’s also a culture with specific rules for interaction and accepted norms of behavior. One of the facets of a culture that is so focused on ideas and theory and argumentation is that the culture needs a steady supply of debate. Problem is, a lot of the bigger debates in academia are usually pretty simple. Moral absolutism(or objectivism) versus moral relativism. Materialism versus cultural determinism (sometimes also versus whatever present permutation of sociobiology exists). Determinism vs non-determinism. These are all “big” ideas that can be fairly easily summarized and generally have apparent flaws that the schisms divide upon. What drives academia and fuels its own form of cultural legitimacy is this idea of “nuance.” Nuance is being able to say to someone who fundamentally disagrees with your position “I don’t think you understand my position” or “my position is more complicated than that” as a form of dancing around strict disagreement. This is but one of the many tools of obfuscation that academia uses. Another tool is the requisite education required to get involved in these discussions, a tripartite thing consisting of the wealth to pursue the education, the bureaucratic degree requirements, and the implicit education needed to read the sorts of arguments that occur.

I digress (I happen to like big words and tend towards the expectation that everyone reading this can access google or even better access me if they don’t understand something I’ve written)

Koster’s argument letter thing up there is an example of nuancing the debate. Though he’s using the same sort of language that “x is/is not a game” debates trend towards, he’s outwardly acknowledging that his position is untenable and finding ways around it so that he can express his dissatisfaction with the games he feels transgress game norms in a way that doesn’t tack to a lost argument. It’s silly as heck but boy howdy it’s pretty much how academia functions. In many ways it’s how the internet functions as well, as discussion forums were both populated from the start by academics and feature similar discursive landscapes. The major difference being that the internet has much lower barriers to entry so the “undergrad” level of discourse happens again and again as new people get involved.

I’m still digressing. Koster isn’t stupid nor is he particularly unaware of this issue. He took a lot of pains in that article to try and acknowledge that the language he’s using is and has been used as a tool of exclusion. Unfortunately he performs little better, putting his foot in mouth and slowly inching it in there with weasel words and constant protestations. The games/not games debate is intensely political, hugely because the games side tend to be the financially and socially successful and the not games side tend to be personal and transgressive and radical.

Making any statement whatsoever on what is or isn’t a game is a political statement. I could and would argue many of the popular interactive experiences offered by EA and their ilk are not really games because of how small the space for interaction is. In shooters, for example, the interaction is limited to shooting other players and devising more efficient ways to shoot and occasionally avoid being shot. RTS games on the other hand have more clearly defined space for differential strategies. Even then the strategies tend to boil down to clicks per second. Here saying that I’m using a definitional statement that insists that games with greater strategies or interactive options are more game than other games. It’s silly and based entirely on personal bias.

This personal bias is what makes those statements so political. You’re declaring a personal belief about the world that is not something that is empirically provable. A large part of this has to do with the fact that at certain level (computer) games are not actually independent things but a kind of computer program. Games in a more physical sense have a lot to do with the cultural constructs of play and leisure. What constitutes play and leisure is of course a culturally discursive thing and so what constitutes a game is a discursive thing. What that means is that games are what people think are games, so when some people think some things are not games and other people think things are games, political conflict occurs.

I digress. Games criticism is like all criticism in that it has to come from a certain point of view. I might criticize the government for being murderous warmongerers or I might criticize it for being a tax and spend bloated bureaucracy or I might do both, but those criticisms come from different assumptions about the world. When we criticize games we’re also making political statements because our criticism has to come from a point of view. If we think a game loses merit because it doesn’t adhere to whatever concept we have of a “formal” game, then we’re making a statement about what we think games ought to be. Simultaneously if we criticize a criticism of a game for being oppressively motivated to rehabilitate deviancy instead of… anything else we’re making another statement about what we think games ought to be.

This is all pretty much taken for granted stuff (though obviously not taken for granted enough if this discussion still comes up and no one begs any of the questions) and I wonder how much of it is due to me being sleepy right now, but there’s more story to go. Robert Yang addressed the letter Koster wrote with a letter to the letter (which I think is a totally schway move and I’m totally stealing it for something in the future) that did a great job of taking apart the language and still remaining respectful of the author. It’s an important step and I’m glad someone did it, since in the middle of discussions about oppression and privilege and various social constructs it’s really really easy to lose track of the people involved. Especially over the internet which reduces all of a person’s being into chunks of text and a few pictures. I don’t think Koster was trying to be mean. The opposite, in fact I think he was trying to express a conflicted feeling as nicely as possible. I don’t even think that he intentionally did any of the bad things I said about nuancing up there. What I do think is that Koster is going through a certain stage in belief that many people do, where you’re forced to confront your beliefs with the knowledge that it’s unsustainable but the emotional conviction that you’re correct.

One of the more consistent things I’ve said over the years is that each and every belief, each culture, each individual ego has to believe on some level that it is genuinely better than any of the alternatives. It needs this drive in order to continue existing and differentiate itself from an environment with conflicting ideas. This assumption of primacy is what both sustains “traditional” cultural ideas and causes the inevitable conflict those ideas have with changing social and physical environments. What Koster is going through emotionally is a sort of cry for help by the “formalist” idea of games that he harbors and the last step in eventually acquiescing to the changing landscape (or possibly forevermore being a concern troll for emotional reasons, who knows).

But back to the supposed premise of whatever rambly nonsense I’ve got here so far. The animus towards cultural legitimacy. The construction of the nerd began sometime in the 80s, though it probably existed well before then as a more generalized “effeminate man” or “coward.” In the 80s though, we learned some big primary facts about the nerd. He is a dude. He is a white dude, and a straight white dude. His parents have the money to support his expensive and stupid hobbies, which are usually centered in some fantasy or other. He needs this fantasy because he is physically frail and/or somehow slightly disabled. Usually glasses. Bullies pick on him. Bullies always pick on him all the time. He is socially inept and incapable of obtaining a girlfriend through the typical ways. Overall the nerd is a collection of disadvantages that renders him an outcast to society. In fact he pretty much has every disadvantage a straight white man could have. But by gum he’s still a straight white man, so he ends up raised with the awareness that he can speak out about these things and that society will generally listen because nerds build our computers and things and society at large is pretty reverent of straight white dudes regardless of how “cool” they are.

So bam, recipe for a persecution complex. Society isn’t living up to its bargain. This attitude spreads towards nerd hobbies. If only my family would see how awesome the anime I’m obsessed with is they’d understand and finally treat me with the respect I deserve. If only those bozos at the school and in congress knew how I’m gaining hand-eye coordination skills and learning all about history by spending all my time playing assassin’s creed.

I want to be clear, though. The sort of people I’ve been linking and talking about, indie devs and generally odd ducks, all have generally more personal reasons for wanting games to achieve cultural legitimacy. And that is also why they’re succeeding where decades of nerds have failed, since they’re genuinely interested in solving the problem, not just in assuaging their insecurities. So they recognize issues that society at large have with gaming and are actively promoting or working to change those problems and forge a newer and wider concept of what games are and what they could be so they can also forge a new concept of what a gamer is. These elements are ironically often in conflict with each other, since the concern of straight white nerds is to make life better for straight white nerds and not actually promote an artistic medium. Admitting different races/genders/creeds into gaming would erode the social environment and challenge the primacy of straight white nerds. Net good, if you ask me.

Here’s a few more articles about/with the animus:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Morality in games

There was a push some time in 2005 or something, back before EGM morphed into an online-only web 2.0 hell website in the midst of Ziff Davis' collapse, for games to have real moral choices. I’m not sure exactly what the genealogy of the idea is, but I’m sure it had something to do with some influential speech by a dev suggesting that games by virtue of presenting players with choices could be presenting moral choices on top of the simpler resource allocation choices. A few games already did this. Deus Ex was famous for not only providing multiple (sometimes as many as six!) paths toward an objective but also providing dialogue options (as many as four! Truly a cornucopia of free will here) that indicated that you felt some moral way about some dang thing. Dialogue choices and occasionally their consequence were featured in nearly every adventure game to date.

But this push was new. This push was driven by an animus, a need to demonstrate games as a viable art form or as something with as much entrenched respect as movie had at contemporary times. The fact that games pulled in more money than movies was irrelevant. Lots of things pull in more money than movies. People buy more Pepsi products than all of video games put together. No what video games wanted was respect. So how do we get respect? How did the movie industry get respect? By empowering directors to make things like Rosebud or Gone With the Wind or the Wizard of Oz and continuing the tradition with challenging, complicated films like Full Metal Jacket or Memento. Games needed to leverage some kind of unique angle to make something that big crowds of people could enjoy but also the critics would like and respect and start referring to the industry as “growing up” or “maturing.” That angle was choice and moral choice specifically (and not, y’know, clearing out the old boys club the industry is).

Enter popular titles like Bioshock and Fable and Mass Effect. Shit was on like Donkey Kong and all of these games gave you as many as three alignments to choose from. You could be an asshole or you could be kind of not really an asshole but still an asshole if you think about it. Each of these games presented situations like some kind of ethical dilemma, and then made certain that the dilemma was obvious. Kill the little girl and drain her fluids or save her from her insanity? Beat up the townsfolk or generally be law-abiding? Rescue the last of an alien species that poses no threat to you or eliminate it?

What happened? Why are we looking at binary or trinary choices as though they have any relevance to the complex and extensive religious laws set down by god/the universe? Morals got translated into a system. Problem is, morals aren’t a system. Despite whatever odd ideas of karma persist, there’s no direct link of causality from your behavior to the world around you. Morals are a code, a series of discursive principles, a set of amorphous rules that are developed and ingrained by the cultures you’re a part of. Ya go online and people be talking like “we gotta keep the internet free from the corporate overlords who want to shackle it up and ruin our shiz! Down with cispa/pipa/sopa/drm/riaa/mpaa/dmc/etc!” and where do ya think they got those ideas from?

Hackers. Anarchistic hackers. Hacking itself is anarchistic, you know. Fighting the rules of the system expressed in the computer devices you purchased from that system. Anyway so morals got injected in games and before you know it there's a dozen middle aged white guys in suit jackets and jeans telling other slightly older white men that the way to the future is "Meaningful Choices." It seemed pretty true. All of the games I've mentioned have made oodles of cash and inspired insipid hordes of sycophants to claim the day of game legitimacy is here and all critics who claim otherwise are verboten. The meaningful choice distinction spread to other games as it was pretty easy to stuff a graphical progress bar in there and initialize a variable for evility but it continued to miss the point.

Anyway anyway the animus that produced this has continued despite the industry making nice and publishing more nuanced games. Today the "make games a legitimate artform" push is multifaceted, with criticisms ranging from the feminist to the pacifist and what sold a boatload and earned a game a spot next to a Team Ico title no longer flies in the face of the discerning modern critic. Games must be better! Today we release Bioshock Infinite, the third bioshock game and a long-awaited production by Ken Levine. It's basically just Bioshock with racist american nationalists instead of amoral randian objectivists. And it takes place in the sky instead of the sea. There's nothing new about it whatsoever.

But no! The critics are abuzz! The game is too violent for its message. The message is too trite for a work of art. Even the mechanics are under fire for being too Haloey. In its underlying premise it's still a first person shooter, the safest form of game designed to appeal to the widest gaming demographic. It's still a product.

Can games be art? Of course they can, they already are and always were. The question is and always has been: "Can games not be products?"

Some links about this issue: (jonathan blow is a d-bag warning)