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Monthly Archives: August 2019

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Is there a name for the deep hunger for evidence that we actually exist? “I think, therefore I am” is a pretty flimsy reassurance. Every character we write believes that they think; every character we write believes that they are. It feels all too likely sometimes that we’re just Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense, suddenly noticing that we aren’t here and never were. We crave evidence – evidence that there is an “I” that can be, evidence that there are thoughts separable from background noise, evidence that the world is in some way measurably different than it would be if we were not here. We can only seek within our perception for proof of our existence, though: What measurements can we meaningfully take when every data point is filtered through a suspect perception?

It’s a need without a name. Not quite social, since the evidence needn’t come from other people, but one often fed by friends and family. Not quite self-fulfillment, since in many ways it doesn’t actually matter if the role we play is one we particularly enjoy. It isn’t recognition because the only person whose perspective matters on it is ourselves. It isn’t a craving for power, though power is often necessary to fulfill it. Where does it come from? A multi-millennia old optimization, ensuring that if we don’t play a vital role in constructing our environment we slowly come to feel apart from it and unwelcome within it.

Why does it feel like so many are left hungering, looking for any evidence that their life, body, and mind, are tangible?

This craving always existed but it has also been fostered. We always wanted to be valued, to contribute, but the cultural narratives we are given of what work has worth and who can contribute has been constrained to a terribly narrow slice, defined in capitalistic terms of ceaseless and blind growth and ambition. To truly exist becomes defined as achieving success, and achieving success is measured by generation of profit. We are told that it is not just an opportunity but an obligation for us to make a difference. We are told stories of great men who shaped the world instead of the stories of good people who improved it. We are told to work hard, to make money, that the only way to feel like we exist is to produce value – though, in the end. we keep little of the value that we have produced.

There is, in each of us, a craving to be part of something greater than ourselves. There is also, in each of us, a craving to stand out, be seen, to be an individual. There is a fear that we are disconnected; there is also a fear that we are replaceable. And we spend our lives seeking some way to balance these cravings and these fears.

Different cultures push further towards one or the other of these as a norm. While elsewhere there is greater emphasis on defining yourself on being part of a family or community, here in the USA we tend to push way over towards the individualistic side, to be unique and to be seen, to tell ourselves that until we’re somebody we’re nobody. There’s a huge drive to distinguish ourselves in some way, to become singular, outstanding. Being the best at something is a common desire but is just one obvious path. There are many paths to individuality, and as many lead to infamy as lead to fame.


In our stories, we create conflicts between characters, between individuals. Often their motivations are entirely personal: Greed, jealousy, anger, fear. Rarely, though, do we explore where greed comes from, where jealousy and anger and fear are created – perhaps, at best, the proximate cause, the slight or the insult or the disappointment, but extremely rarely the characters’ cultural understanding that the right way to respond to these infractions is with revenge, with conflict, with violence. This, perhaps counter-intuitively, becomes even more true as the media becomes more prestigious: High art is rarely concerned with why things are, only that they are. It is concerned with the specifics of trauma and violence and lust, and never with the underpinnings of where these emotions are seeded. It is concerned with the individual, and not with the society they emerged from.

All this is exemplified by and to some degree stems from the prime edict of ‘good’ writing: Show, don’t tell. Show the characters’ internal lives, don’t tell what gave rise to them. Show the sex and violence, the immediate and visceral interaction, without attempting to impart any understanding of where the desires towards intercourse or physical harm emerge. These are just human nature, right? Right??

Lust and violence, urges to power and protect, love and hate, these are all part of our species-wide heritage – that much is undeniably true. However, the form that these take, the things we come to lust after or hate, hurt or protect, are shaped by the culture they exist within. But ‘good’ art is not allowed to question these, because that would be telling – not showing. We are concerned with only the proximate cause and effect, and never the long chains of systemic causes and effects that lead to them. So every villain in our stories is on trial for war crimes, saying over and over that they were just following orders – and we never stop to wonder who gave the orders in the first place.

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In games, actions have consequences. This is broadly true in all cases: The game is defined by its reactions to the actions you take within its spaces. However, when we talk about games – and when games talk about themselves – the concept of ‘consequence’ tends to take on a very specific meaning: When a game says that actions have consequences, it means narrative consequences – and, though this is not so much stated as assumed, it also tends to mean that these consequences are karmic. That is, good actions achieve good results, bad actions achieve bad results . If you’re not sure what good or bad are, don’t worry: The game will tell you.

While consequences in these games may be unexpected or even unintended, they almost always fall within the broad moral scope of whatever choice you’ve made. If you choose to kill, more people die, more chaos is created, the world is made worse, and if you choose to spare the world is made happier, safer, more predictable – regardless of who or what it is you choose to kill and what mayhem it may cause in the future, or how cruel the circumstances of ‘sparing’ might be. Obviously, cause and effect are not always this predictable: The world is capricious, and when you take an action within its systems the consequences that emerge from it are often quite unpredictable and unrelated to whatever moral reasoning was used to arrive at that decision.

This abstraction would perhaps be less galling if the games using these karmic systems weren’t premised on the justness of violent intervention under all circumstances, with only these specific predetermined pivot points being where the use of violence to achieve your definitely just and righteous goals was questioned.

Even if this is frustrating, it’s also revealing. We take a lot of cognitive shortcuts when it comes to moral reasoning. Often, legality comes to stand in for morality, which is convenient because then the flawed mechanisms of human justice can appear as some sort cosmic justice, and the consequences of our actions can seem, if we squint, to take on a moral dimension. The worst evils, though, are frequently entirely legal, and performed by organizations rather than individuals, while the law often punishes courageous moral acts performed by individuals. First legality, then morality, comes to be defined as that which stands with power and protects the status quo. No one with a heart and mind could believe that this is a good measure of ethics. Many people manage it, regardless.

Most games are either interested in an absolutism where the law is the rules and any infraction is a failure to play the game properly or in a nihilism where all legality and morality is irrelevant and the player can cause as much mayhem as they wish without thinking about its impacts. However, when we try in games to explore moral gray areas it mostly comes in the form of individual decisions – and overwhelmingly often in taking shortcuts to ensure extralegal punitive justice is meted out. This is in some ways an acknowledgment of the limitations of legality as a system for approximating cosmic justice – but always by stating the system is insufficiently punitive to some person in particular. We know the law and its enforcement is often unjust, so standing against it might not seem morally gray at all if we don’t tack on some other ethically questionable action such as vigilantism – but this leaves a gap. Morally gray action 1: Uphold the law, which is questionable. Morally gray action 2: Defy the law in order to do something questionable.

In aggregate, most of the options offered by games are: Follow all the rules, break all the rules, or selectively break rules to enforce punitive justice. Rarely do we actually have the option of defying the law in order to do something morally just beyond punishment. This gap between legality and morality is vital to explore, and yet because of how we have defined our moral terms it becomes invisible to us. When the law bans compassion, only the outlaws will have compassion.

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Everyone who likes art inevitably has the experience of revisiting something that they loved many years ago and, with older and more experienced eyes, finding it deeply Problematic. ‘Problematic’ is a strange word, being essentially a shorthand for “has issues which are too abstract to fit conveniently into this sentence without making it unwieldy”, but it’s become rather popular over recent decades specifically because of this vagueness. Problems are commonplace, complex, and interwoven, and though we must eventually get into the guts of what those particular problems and their complexities are it is useful to have a catch-all term to start with.

As time passes, and we gain a greater understanding of the societal issues of the past and how they contribute to current issues, as we find out more potentially troubling background information about the creators, more and more work shifts into problematic territory. We can probably safely assume that everything, sooner or later and to greater or lesser degree, will eventually be problematic. The question that naturally follows when something you love becomes problematic, for whatever reason, is: Do you continue to love it? Can you? Should you?

Can you even completely stop loving something you once loved if you feel you ought to? Once we have a positive experience it sticks in memory, and barring something really traumatic it tends to stay there for life. There’s a part of you that will always have time for this piece of art, no matter how troubling its implications or stereotypical its characters – and this is fine.

More than fine: It’s good.

Just as no piece of art will ever be aesthetically perfect, no piece of art will ever be ideologically perfect, and learning to see, evaluate, and appreciate those imperfections will give you a lens through which to see the ways in which your own beliefs and ideals may be harmful. It will give you a critical eye to see how a piece can be deeply flawed, irresponsible, even dangerous, but still be worthy of your love – the bits and pieces of brilliance that shine through the stupidity and cruelty, sometimes even without the creator really intending them to.

All art is problematic, it’s just a question of whether or not we’ve noticed it and put names to those problems yet. More than though, all art should be problematic – the only way it could ever be anything less is by staying purely within well understood boundaries of fact and portraying only perfectly kind and healthy people and relationships – in other words, only if it had nothing to say and nothing to offer. Even then, it would probably fail – frequently it is those works which tried to be most morally upstanding at the time which become most troubling in retrospect.

Yet we desire purity, and this desire manifests in two ways: Many people will reject any and all criticism of something they love out of hand, deny there are any issues so that they can still love uncomplicatedly, and presume a perfection that does not exist just to avoid considering any potential flaws. Others will immediately discard any work, no matter how much they might otherwise value it, the moment there’s any question of it having issues, of it being less than perfect: They will deny the validity of any art that fails to hew to their moral standards. Either art is beyond criticism, or it is hanging on a thread above a pit of cancellation. These two opposing stances have the same root cause: Unwillingness to love imperfection.

The challenges of loving art are much the same as the challenges of loving people: Both are unreliable, both will let you down sometime, there is no perfection and as time moves on it leaves our flawed beliefs and aesthetics behind. It is necessary, though, to learn both to see imperfection and to see past imperfection: To see the harm done by careless stereotypes or hamfisted allegories, but also see the moments of beauty and insight and humanity lying just beyond. This isn’t to say you have to continue to love art that the world has moved past, just that you not feel obligated to hate it – or to ignore its flaws.

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Everyone feels trapped. Helpless. We have a problem, and it’s a trolley problem. We are on rails, and the scope of our choices sharply constrained. There is no preventing the harm, only, perhaps, reducing it.

In the face of impending disaster, the scope of the world shrinks. When the tiger is chasing us, there is no east or west, just a one-dimensional measure: Away from or towards. Like an action hero escaping a rolling boulder, the idea of dodging to the side never enters our minds: We must move as quickly as possible away from the threat, even if it dooms us.

We wake up. We eat breakfast. Go to work, go to the movies, go to sleep, and follow the tracks laid out, and the scarier it is the more unthinkable it becomes to change the routine. Even if our routine is part of the threat, we cling to it because it is also the only thing we can rely upon. Trapped in a prison, we reinforce its walls to try to feel safer.

Violence blooms. When you believe your life exists on a single axis, that your worth is measured by your impact and that the only tool you have to create an impact is your violence, it becomes startlingly easy to justify unthinkable atrocity to yourself. It is only expected that someone will do something drastic when they feel trapped – and the more horrible things we do to each other the more trapped we feel by one another, and each act of violence acts catalyst to the next.

What role does art have in this world? What role do games have in it? Violence has always been a huge part of American art. We see the world in terms of violence – the real, physical, undeniable kind, because the tacit violences of oppression and denial are invisible and unacknowledged by us. Crime is violence. Justice is violence. Violence is understood as the alpha and omega, the cause and solution of all of our problems. When presented with a time machine and the horrors of the holocaust, the question we come up with is whether you should go back in time to murder baby Hitler. This probably wouldn’t solve the problem and it would be murdering a baby, but this is the calculus of our morality, atrocity vs atrocity. This has become extremely normal. We export it worldwide.

There is no reason to believe that this is a necessary intrinsic trait of art. It’s just how things are now.

Traditional narrative art, novels and movies and so forth, frequently feature violence – but, because they are singular narratives, it’s easy for us to assume that this violence is just a point of drama and interest in the context of an otherwise full world, with love and science and food and all that other good stuff that we like to spend time on. Games, though… are odd. Violent games aren’t just a portrayal of a violent anomaly in a normal world, they are portrayals of violent worlds, worlds where the only way to interact is through attacking and killing. You are on a track. Your only problem is a trolley problem: What path will you take, and what will the final body count be?

Narrative art, in each case, tells just one story, but implies the existence of many diverse others within its unseen world. Games, by necessity, have to collapse the possibilities of their world into near-nothingness, just so their inevitable bloody endings will make sense. This tendency is, if anything, made worse by the advent of “open-world” games – games which pretend to a living and breathing verisimilitude while presenting a paucity of genuine options. “You can do anything” they quietly promise – and, as long as the only thing you want to do is race cars and shoot people, you might never know the difference.

Obvious lies are not ineffective lies, and are still easily believed by those with motivation to believe them. They tell us we can do anything. They tell us this world exists beyond the boundaries of violence, and then give us only the tools of violence with which to explore it – and, in this way, these games truly are simulations of America: A country that believes it still must arm good guys in order to kill bad guys, a country that believes it is the sole role of a man to stand up and fight for what he believe in no matter what it might be, a country that believes that choosing the hard choice to sacrifice human life for the ‘greater good’ is just and admirable. A country with an entire toolbox but that never lays down its hammer, and sees human lives only as nails.

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What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).

I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.

Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.

When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.

Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.

However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.

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