I wrote this about six months ago, in response to WHOOOOOA MAAAAAN the feeling of fucking failure, the creepy-crawlies of defeat, the Mariana Trench 10,000G pressure of What The Hell Do I Do Now?
I don’t know if it’s still relevant or not. You tell me.
I need to process 2012, and this seems as good a time as any. It has been an odd year, characterised primarily by hope and failure. At the same time, I might remember it as a bit of a turning point in a few years, because while everything I’ve worked for over the past three years pretty much came apart in a shower of sparks, I also accomplished more than ever before. I’ve grown stupendously as a person, but I have also diminished.
First of all, 2012 was the year when seeing the interconnectedness of all things — the layers of control, meaning and ideals that makes sure the world worlds, that people people, the weather weathers and feathers feather — lost its novelty and became just Another Way of Seeing, no longer intrinsically wondrous but actually a void of wonders, a plughole greedily consuming all the spiders washed towards it.
It ultimately made me more disconnected, a processing unit rather than an experiencing self, only able to make meaning through deconstruction, many finely woven filters wrapped around an isolated core of shoddily sublimated insecurities and a manic neophilia struggling to cope with the odd entrenchment of nostalgia in the midst of all the disruption.
I only really got turned on to hardline relativism about four years ago. Before that, I was pretty dogmatic in a vaguely defined far-leftist fashion. Marxist sensibilities, faith in government as nurturing mother goddess rather than vengeful patriarch. A strong sense that economical and social equality would lead to a sturdier, safer society and that this equality could be funded with state revenue. But I had my epiphany while researching tons of HCI, feminist, esoteric and design literature.
I had touched upon relativism in my teens, first when a friend’s praise for a common hotdog led me to postulate that the notion of “perfection” was absurd if it could be applied to finely ground meat byproducts stuffed in a pig’s intestine and that — accordingly — there was no god. Later, I realized that I don’t know what hair smells like, because I would be unable to distinguish the smell of hair from the smells of waxes, oil, shampoo and cosmetics.
The closest I ever got to truly defining my inchoate notion of relativism was explaining what I then did not know was called a cosmology to a Malaysian priest I met on a bus. I have no idea why I ended up talking to him, but I told him about the way I conceptualized the relationship between beings as an infinite grid of lights that flickered, strengthened, diminished seemingly independently but whose brightness and motion was mutually, globally co-dependent, the motion of one being the motion of all, each unit’s influence over another hardly measurable, but still definite. I didn’t know it then, but I almost reproduced Indra’s Net. I’m pretty happy with that in hindsight.
Reading HCI and interaction design literature, with their emphasis on modelling and cybernetics, coupled with post-structuralist social theories (performativity, constructionism, feminist epistemology), cognitive science (especially mental modelling, concept formation and retention as well as habit formation) and my first brushes with Californian Ideology, made me realize that every individual constructs a model for interpreting their surroundings and circumstances according to cultural schema reinforced by social, economic, cultural, religious and political factors local to each individual’s identity formation. Each individual would be completely immersed in a world of their own making.
Their “gender role and identity”, their “sexual orientation”, fetishes, taboos, even emotions. I suspect that human emotion isn’t biologically determined and that there is no human nature — there is only habit formation, positive and negative reinforcement, mimickry and status struggle. There is a number of dominant schema delineating socially acceptable, responsible and desirable behaviour. For example, there is the Hollywood model of the human emotional spectrum. There’s also the Bollywood model, the San Fernando Valley model, the Kabuki theatre model and so on. Every mediated form comprises a particular set of assumptions about human nature and its manifestations.
That was when the image focused (or rather completely lost focus) and I felt somehow, weirdly, free. Liberated from the insistence that my way of life was especially valid, or represented some kind of norm. Where I’m from, we’re big on norms and conformism, so maybe I’m pointing out the totally bleeding obvious here, but bear with me.
Relativism is, weirdly, really counter-intuitive to a lot of people (probably not you, you must be smart if you’ve read this far, right? Right!). Especially the notion that one thing is not necessarily better than another just because you think so, is really mind-blowing to a not insignificant proportion of at least North-Western European and American people. It’s probably common all over the globe, which lets the mindful relativist feel really smart almost all the time, practically anywhere, since the majority of people make absolutist staments all the time. Chauvinist statements. Essentialist statements. It’s pretty much the way they define their surroundings: What I know is good. Any divergences are less good, although they can be habituated — but preferably conquered.
My realization and acceptance of relativism came without much fanfare. Relativism isn’t really a subject for celebration or contestation, but rather for quiet reflection and acquiescence. Before I had used to read a collection of newspapers from different corners of the earth, comparing and contrasting information to build a golden mean of current events. Now I couldn’t take any of them seriously, my detachment from the referents that accord those news outlets’ power revealing them as shambolic territorial constructs, anal fixation expressed orally (or via secretion, obviously, jet of ink or toner spurting from some pen or printhead).
The way news organizations and news outlets employed language started to appear parallel to the limited range of human emotions portrayed (and thus “proven possible”) by American film and TV, news media reproducing a very narrow spectrum of opinion and perspective using very particular language rules and rigid formats juxtaposing often grotesquely unrelated material in a hodge-podge of conflicting and contrasting meaning.
* * *
It’s pretty weird that I didn’t notice before. Of course I did, in a sense, but not with the same astonishing clarity and sense of connectedness, the experience of many meanings coiling and knotting through loops and pulleys in apparently disparate spheres that yet turned out to be connected. It’s pretty weird because I’ve played videogames nearly all my life, and a defining characteristic of games is that they are rarely about the thing they purport to be about.
ANYWAY anyway, by 2012 I was no longer pleased with myself for being so smart that I’d figured out that nothing is as it seems and certainly not as we say. I had trained my powers of deconstruction and dissembly on practically every domain I had any grasp on. Film, literature, games, politics, history, philosophy, religion. Not music, certainly not maths. The joy of trying out new eyes was gone, instead my relativism had become reflexive, not an active and guided process but a well-rehearsed subroutine that had been so thoroughly internalized that I produced weird, counter-intuitive loop-the-loop thoughts as a matter of habit.
I found it harder and harder to converse and exchange with my peers, as I found the premises for most of their thought to be arbitrary and nonsensical, rooted in value judgements, cultural tradition and religious dogma. At the same time, explaining precisely why was a Herculean task, since absolutes had to be comprehensively revoked. In a culture built on numbers, there are no immediate benefits to this line of thinking. I had finally, I thought, gone insane. I now vibrated at a different frequency, for better or worse. Not that “better” or “worse” means anything to a relativist, they only mean something to the subjects the relativist observes. Obviously.
It would be a stretch for anyone to call it “better”, as nothing about my situation at the start of 2012 was particularly promising. I was finally a bona-fide professional game developer, but the question was how long I could keep that act up. Strongman never had enough money to ensure smooth operation, and I had to spend all of my savings to keep my head above water.
My dad had just left my mother for another man, prompting full familial meltdown. My attempts to reassure my mum that things were gonna work out amply demonstrate how disconnected I had grown: “You’re just a naked ape on a rock hurtling through space. Stop trying to control your life,” followed by “You don’t need to feel ashamed about your marriage finally collapsing. I have expected it to fail for well over a decade, and I’m glad you have finally chosen to be honest with each other.”
So here I was, voracious infosumer, working hard in my chosen field, tethered pretty precariously on the edge of financial ruin, my back aching, building too many things at once in a desperate hope that if only one of them would sorta-kinda float, I could somehow manage to secure a couple of bolts in that financial cliffside, eventually tangle surrounding shrubbery into a kind of platform where I could pitch a tent and live on my oddly suspended peat cloud, gazing into that ruinous abyss and pat myself on the back over how cleverly and securely I had suspended myself above it.
This, intriguingly, closely mirrored the way the rest of the world seemed to respond to whatever the hell is going on in political, business and financial circles at this time. Even the Occupy movement had purposelessness about it, as if it didn’t know precisely what about the shitegeist it was protesting. It was a war on symbols waged with symbols, an identity political smörgåsbord of vaguely lefty-wingy autonomisty individualisty resistance against the poor effort made — by a hazily defined rogues’ gallery of powermongers, usurers and oligarchs — to bring about a level society, the flat world promised by the globalists.
I didn’t feel particularly compelled by this. I was glad to see someone actually participating corporeally in a show of protest, even if the overblown and self-important media coverage made those protests feel more like co-option opportunities for up-and-coming columnists than expressions of people power. This is the world I was increasingly concernedly catching through the corner of my All-Seeing Eye, while I was Making Games. “Good gravy,” I thought as I tweaked the shiny on Ka-Bloom and shook my tiny fist impotently at faceless and similarly-named executives in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Worldwide division, “They are protesting the wrong thing. They are not protesting against their own way of life!”
* * *
Ka-Bloom’s development was probably going swimmingly. I couldn’t tell, because I was getting pretty grumpy but most of all I was proud about the validation of having our game (my game. My first game!) published by a well-established media company but above all I was exhilarated because this could allow Strongman to careen carelessly towards Icarus-like exampledom for another year or so. I worked on what was probably the seventh revision of the tutorials, an endeavour that saw eye-watering amounts of interference, at least by my measure. By creative industry standards, I may well have had a gentle ride, but to an inexperienced cowboy like me, the rodeo was unsettling.
The Bucking Bronco Corporation’s LA-based creative leadership stimulated a cancerous growth in the amount of tutorial content, turning a sixth of My Game (as it increasingly became, since I was overstretched and ego started settling terrain that superego had been kinda careless about holding onto) into spoonfed retard paste for an imaginary, drooling consumer who somehow managed to handle an iOS device but couldn’t be expected to just employ the affordances provided by the game to solve the reasonably simple visual field sorting, planning and mental arithmetic puzzles on display. The more nimble-fingered and competitive could engage in some fairly generous timing and distance-measuring challenges, but that was more or less it.
Anyway, the real issue (as I saw it) was as follows: The Beeb had, for some reason, decided they wanted to port and publish a comprehensively broken game. Ka-Bloom was lovingly pieced together, but it was way too experimental and rushed to really be playable. Somehow, though, a lot of people liked it. I think it was mostly because it was out of the ordinary and reasonably pretty. The original game’s carefully orchestrated puzzles, weirdly small scale and often muddled goals wasn’t exactly a triumph of game design.
Ka-Bloom was very obviously designed for touchscreens (and was originally meant to be the MVP of a growing set of games featuring the Floret), had The Cute and The Physics and was finished. Porting it would be a formality. New content, better shinies, remixed music. I strongly suspect that no-one involved realized that Ka-Bloom was a broken game that needed serious work (or someone knew but the involved parties as a whole was in denial about it), but all the information I can work on is the picture of Inside Beeb presented to me by my saintly producer. I can’t imagine what was really going on. The picture I made up in my mind, no matter the reality, was that no-one actually realized that the game was broken.
So when the tutorials started bouncing and I received The Wrong Feedback when asking what the precise issue was, I figured that someone higher up had finally played Ka-Bloom for more than a few minutes and certainly realized what I already knew. This, obviously, would never be said out loud. Instead, the tutorials became a sort of meta-battlefield where I vied a second-hand war through my producer over what the game would be presented as.
I think the big problem was that the game was very ambiguous about the player’s role and mode of embodiment. Is the player the Floret? Is the player helping the Floret? From there, the player is left to wonder what precisely is happening (to them?) on-screen. Things grow and shrink, suddenly the blue aura (flower? Perimeter?) is supplemented by a green … whatever it is. It’s not entirely clear whether the gem or its centre must be within range of another to link them. The green aura (starburst? Energy field?) counts actions, awkwardly and occasionally contrasting timing as primary tactical concern (but fitting well with the overall strategic planning challenge), a missed opportunity for making multiple timing puzzles build tension and maintain rhythm. Is a chain a link? How many links go in a chain? Does two chains make one once they’re hotlinked? What is hotlinking?
Without a clearly defined role (the ambiguous embodiment), there is limited scaffolding for modelling the relationship between the objects in the gamespace. The player is bombarded with uncertainties. Even the goal feels arbitrary despite being a visual centrepiece; it is too subdued. To top it off, Ka-Bloom does not model any real-world activity but revels in eating. Eating gems. Not even that makes sense. If players decide to get on with it, and just accepts what they are seeing without investing too much significance into the symbols or demand some kind of clear role or identity in the context of the game, the activity of engaging with the game is enjoyable.
The best way to solve this complex of design problems would be to avoid attempting to clarify any ambiguities and let the player form a mental model of the game’s rules by experimenting with the provided affordances. Simply present the affordance and explain how to employ it with a visual demonstration. Then present a few scenarios that demonstrate any non-intuitive rules and special cases (what Hamish Todd calls “antepieces”, a great coinage: http://www.destructoid.com/untold-riches-the-brilliance-of-half-life-s-barnacles-233589.phtml) and be unapologetic about it. Either the player likes the game, or not.
My shadowy, out-of-reach publisher executives opted for the opposite solution: Overexplain the game in a series of 10 text-heavy, animated tutorials that stretch on and on long after the player has got the point, sapping them of any curiosity and sense of wonder, ensuring that every oddly shaped cog and poorly oiled wheel is pointed out and apologized for in due order. By the end, the player is most likely — and rightly — disgusted.
Now, this is where it is claimed that life imitates Monday morning quarterbacking about the process behind art in order to make a wider point about the time we live in, and my disgust with it. As I grew increasingly exasperated with the ever-less constructive feedback from the ever-less accessible executives mandating an ever-bloating tutorial, I started venting to my producer. Somehow, he had the generosity and patience to take earful after earful of my hateful tutorial design conjecture in what can only be described as cathartic expressions of contempt. These conversations usually started with my producer informing me that my concerns would not be brought forward in these terms, and I informed him that my harsh language was intended for an imaginary recipient that was not him.
So there I was, relishing in inventing run-on joke insults I could present my peer and colleague in order to express frustration at my lack of access to actual decision-makers who obviously had a lot less invested in “my” project than I did. My mode of resistance was a kind of peacocking, demonstrating obvious mental agility and psychological insight in an effort to validate and underpin my pedagogical opinion. Make me seem right. But it was ineffectual posturing, and completely meaningless apart from as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. I was performing for an audience.
I wasn’t out there protesting with Occupy, but I was doing the same thing. I was performing ineffectual resistance to the wrong audience (the only one I had available, a peer of my age group, early in his career, with apparently substantially less power than I had) over my indignation at the consequences of what is ultimately my own dishonesty: Allowing someone to invest in a vehicle I did not have a significant amount of faith in. I was butthurts because this shit wasn’t serving the intended (naive, overeager) purpose.
Just so, unfortunately, with a substantial chunk of “my own generation”, my “cohort”, whatever the hell that means. People who are sorta in my situation, except my situation is exceptional because my risk approaches zero from the simple fact that I’m always able to fly home to the gravy train in Norway and put up with an unexceptional existence in exchange for comfort and safety. But you know. “Us.” “We.” The young and ambitious who think they’ve been ever-so-slightly shafted as the ladder leading to the middle class was hastily pulled up and replaced with a rope of sand.
There’s a sense of insecurity now. Big contrast to the rosy memory of the nineties and noughties, that’s for sure. Security has turned into surveillance, the internet prevents any coherent grand narratives and its open yet inaccessible pockets of like-minded bickerers relish in unrelenting pedantry and sophistry. In place of the grand narratives, each subculture seems to have established its own dogma that it can police in order to exercise mock power in an ideological arena, but without any meaningful outcome aside from group status. Fantasy football identity politics. Since we have little access to decision-makers (due, in large part, to the giant bureaucracies supporting the oft-shortsighted and opportunistic foibles of the apparently thoroughly compromised and parasitic political class), and we have the tools to create finely honed, unspontaneous and well-gardened sociopolitical contexts, especially online — tons of little bio fields to anchor an identity in — we respond to our powerlessness with a sort of ideological control-freakery.
I imagine, because I never went there, that the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s was a hashtag on Twitter. Tons of expression, tons of generally like-minded, almost conformist young people delineating their own identity through policing finely granulated subcultural dogma. No grand narratives, just personal narratives. I define myself through what I can accuse you of not being, literally making myself the protagonist in a struggle over the precise definition of an idealistic notion. Perhaps I’m just projecting here, accusing my contemporaries of a general pettiness to make my own seem normal, but I feel justified nonetheless. I’m sick of us.
* * *
I’m sick of the privileged carefully delineating their victimhood, wearing it almost as a point of pride, a badge of honour for carrying the weight of the world.
I’m sick of the incessant labelling and territorial demarcation that characterize online discourse.
I’m sick of the neverending pseudo-intellectualism of geek culture (hereunder “gamers.”) It harbours pretentions of cultural relevance, yet centres around cold and dead technology with no intrinsic beauty. It reflexively celebrates creatively bankrupt techno-utopian fantasies about the transformative effects of technology, both on an individual and social level, but resists any opportunities to develop beyond infantility (see: wretched, admirable Anonymous).
I’m sick of game developers and critics insisting that digital games are valid and important contributions to culture (which, undoubtedly, they are) when neither camp can articulate precisely why they are culturally relevant, nor can they contrive a suitably circuitous cultural context to claim as their own, in which they could assert dominance. No, most game critics don’t understand much about games, nor do they have much of a cultural horizon. Most game developers are deluded about what the form actually means and are just as culturally impoverished as the critics.
Most games are garbage, and they should be recognized as such. Most games that attempt to be artistic or dramatic in the same way traditional authorially controlled linear media can be, come off as crass, camp and melodramatic. The rest come across as hand-holding exercises and interactive environmental art portfolios.
I’m sick of the all-permeating hypocrisy. I’m sick of the double standards. I’m sick of moralism that goes hand in hand with eagerness to cast oneself as a victim. I’m sick of geek culture self-flagellating over chainmail bikinis one moment, then embracing depictions of underage rape the next and refusing to see the stupidity. Oh, the fucking stupidity.
I’m sick of the celebration of the 80s, a decade most of my cohort is too young to have a stable picture of. It was our parents’ decade. But more importantly, it was the decade that led us to where we are now, teetering on the brink of a very well-deserved tumble into the abyss. It was the first truly grim and decadent decade after WW2. It was where most of the values and ideas that have twisted our societies into oligarchies originated or were validated. It may have been a decade of fun and innocence compared to the unrelenting grimness we face now, but there is nothing to celebrate there. There is nothing to reclaim from the 80s. There is nothing to celebrate, only mock and defang. Fuck you. Stop.
I’m sick of how important everyone (including me) is on the internet.
* * *
I see what you’re trying to do, rest of us. You’re trying a few very noble things, but you are too selfish, like me. You’re very self-important. Your voice is very strong and loud. But you’re a hypocrite, and you are not a political creature. You are a consumer. You are passive. You are not self-critical. You have not confronted the taboos that define your culture. You are ashamed over your genitals and what they are used for. You wish you didn’t have your filthy leaky body but could just be a pure white light like the four ones circling after you switch on the PS2 without a game in the disc tray. Yes, you’re growing older – the PS2 was long ago.
I’m struggling to articulate it, even after thousands of words of this bullshit.
So yeah, 2012 was the year when I finally and very seriously trained my overly critical gaze on the assumptions underlying my social and political identity, and found them hard to reconcile with my experience. There have been so many examples over the last year, so many towering edifices gloriously displaying precisely what is Wrong. While I was never optimistic on behalf of the West (oof, another one of those terrible generalizations again), I was quietly optimistic about my generation. I figured we could help turn the tide, see the world in a different light.
Take our systems literacy and our community-building skills and employ the tools that are almost exclusively our domain to rebuild the notion of citizenship. A different citizenship, obviously, since nothing remains the same — and that’s what I’m afraid of here, of sounding reactionary — but I hoped to see the loathed body politic exhibit some traits I could recognize and admire from more civically active periods.
There are some symptoms of our times that exhibit suitably radical reconsiderations of ownership, definitions of exchange and value, such as The Pirate Party. Then there’s Anonymous, that model of anarchic, disembodied autonomism, exposing how the architectural weaknesses of the Internet provides a channel for dissent. But diminishing returns, in the end Anonymous has only managed to make cybersecurity a bona fide legislative and political issue, and I for one would have liked to see that dog sleep for a while longer. But I’m not particularly enamored with the nationalist politics underpinning the Pirate Party, and the libertarian sensibilities of Anonymous promotes a dog-eat-dog ethic and mode of resistance that I can’t see being effective at anything but strengthening the surveillance state in the long run.
Anyway, Pirate Bay and Anonymous are representative kernels of potential modes of citizenship. De-radicalize them, and you get an offshoot of the transparency movement. I’d call it similar to Wikileaks, but I can’t honestly claim to understand enough about Assange and his organization to make the comparison. The point is that the internet is exploited to facilitate real and novel forms of resistance. Mass-dispersal of classified information. Second-hand control of the means of production and distribution. On the fringes, you could point to places like Silk Road as using the internet to assert a radical, transgressive form of liberty.
But I associate all of these acts with the right-wing of the political spectrum, and I’m not really there. I used to consider myself whatever is not that, because I’m not particularly convinced that laissez-faire would do any of us any good the way society is currently composed and structured, financially, economically or legally. Practically any deregulation in this climate is a transfer of legislative power to the formerly regulated organizations, rather than an abolishment of legislation per se.
* * *
But all that was months ago, and I guess things didn’t change.
We shall see if it wasn’t for the better.