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froggy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how finding an audience is tied to finding a community, and generally being more open as a way to access more energy and creativity. Since then, I’ve been trying to be more active in game dev communities, posting about my work, seeing what people are talking about, et cetera. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, but I’ve made some progress at least.

Here’s something I learned very quickly: There are reasons I’ve shut myself off. They aren’t all good reasons, but it wasn’t an accident. When I talked about making myself a conduit to allow energy to flow rather than a dam to conserve it, I failed to consider that it’s not always necessarily fun being filled with energy. I didn’t get much sleep the first week. I’ve shut myself off a bit more since then to recover, but I have ambitions to push myself further again so I can probably anticipate more acute anxiety and sleeplessness and productivity and – all of a sudden it makes a lot of sense why so many indie devs get so much done and seem so frazzled all the time. I just opened that door a crack, I can barely imagine living directly in that stream of human idea and energy.

We all find ways to close off a bit, even if some of us are more overt about it than others. Many people who are exposed to the public stop listening because the voices are too numerous and the need too acute. Others shy away from the public completely and publish work from a distance. Some listen at certain times and then lock themselves away to work at others. It’s a negotiation that happens per person, trying to find a way to live close enough to the stream of human consciousness that they can fish in it without drowning in it.

Of course, I’m nowhere near drowning in it, it’s a two-mile hike to get to the stream to get idea water but I used to have drowning nightmares so even a light misting can freak me out and this metaphor has gotten out of hand.

Everyone is exposed, everyone is hungry, everyone wants to be heard and is struggling to listen. Just paying attention to the salivating throb of the creative economy can be difficult because it’s an open question how many of these people will have their needs met, and whether I can be helpful at all in doing so – even before considering whether my own hunger to be heard will ever be fed. There are so many people creating art and music, making games and writing stories, and all of these have value but how many of them will find an audience? How much audience is there, out there, to find?

In a world where success is defined as a financial self-sufficiency that demands thousands of sales, if more than 0.01% of people are creators and each creator has limited time to consume the work of others… when are we so saturated with creation that trying to share an audience becomes impossible?

Would you pay to see George Wendt in a bean-eating movie?

Would you pay to see George Wendt in a bean-eating movie?

Can we just get something out of the way, and admit that ‘Data-Driven’ is a nonsense statement? There are a lot of companies out now that claim to have a ‘Data-Driven’ philosophy which, in practice, means that they collect a whole lot of information and then make decisions based on that.

Wait a minute. Isn’t that basically how decisions have been made since… always? Admittedly, the nature of that information has changed: Early information was collected via anecdote and trial and error, as in “Don’t eat that berry, it killed Phil’. Slightly later, decisions were made based on advice from our respected, venerable, frequently syphilitic and insane elders – and, now, slightly later still, decisions are made based on vast collections of numbers produced by experimentation. Some of that information is a hell of a lot more reliable than the anecdotal and mythological precepts of former times, but it is still neither perfectly reliable nor is it without bias.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m all for the collection of as much information as possible to inform decisions – disregarding, for the moment, the ethical concerns behind mass data collection, which are plentiful – but thinking of this as either a fundamentally new approach or necessarily superior approach is naive. And, considering the vast size and financial power of the institutions believing in this techno-utopian method, this naïveté is more than a bit worrying.

No matter how much information you collect, there will always be limits to what can be collected. We only have one ocean, and even if we experiment on small pools of water we can never be quite sure how those experiments will affect the sea. Though we can see how the price of each product affects its own sales, we can only guess at what it does to the overall market. What fills those gaps in knowledge will always be just guesswork.

No matter how much information you collect, there’s still a human being making decisions on both ends. There’s someone deciding which information to collect, how and when to collect it, how to organize it, and what qualifies as information – and there’s someone, on the other end, determining what the information means, what courses of action are recommended or contradicted by it, and how to proceed. This human component is not removable: Even if you devise algorithms to parse the data, to make changes and recommendations and projects based on it, that’s just pushing the human decision back, one more layer, to the person responsible for writing the algorithms. And, no matter how you try to tighten that loop, it will always be subject to human biases, because in the end even the assessment of what results are desirable or undesirable are derived from our own human desires.

No matter how much information you collect, the end result of trying to systematize and data-drive everything is solely an abdication of responsibility. The end result is that when something goes wrong, we can pretend it’s the fault of a machine, a faceless other, rather than the fault of the flawed and human assumptions and beliefs that went into creating the machine – or, more frequently, deny that anything is wrong at all, because the data doesn’t lie, and heck, it’s always worked fine for me.

Yeah, the machine that you devised, that was created with your own needs and those of others like you in mind, works fine as long as it serves solely that purpose. If it fails to serve others, well, that’s their fault for not fitting into your paradigm, isn’t it? The data doesn’t lie, the machine works, and if it doesn’t then it’s not really anyone’s fault – and, therefore, not really anyone’s responsibility – it’s just how things are, sure as rain and snow. Nothing can really be fixed, because everything already works perfectly as well as it possibly can (as far as you can tell). What a shame that the humans that this machine was supposed to be built around, that were supposed to be so perfectly served, whose needs so perfectly anticipated, fail so frequently to fit into the parameters conceived of by you, the machine’s designer.

But, really, it’s just their fault for not being like you, isn’t it?

HomerIsTheBiggestManInTheWorldAndAlsoMadeOfSolidGold

Let’s talk about success.

I’d like to say that everyone has their own definition, that each individual has their own set of standards by which they declare a pursuit a success or a failure – but, by and large, that is unfortunately not true. In reality, everyone means basically the same thing when they say success, and they mean profitable. Even people who aren’t that invested in the ideals of moneymaking tend to default to that definition.

Those of us who question the concept of money as measure of personal worth intuit that this definition of success is unjust. It is telling that we mean something so different when we speak of ‘good’ art than we do of ‘successful’ art. Surely, art should be considered successful if it succeeds at what it endeavors to do – and yet, no, the only success is financial success It’s built into our very language: We assume everyone is just in it for the money.

Anyone who pursues anything else, if they don’t happen to find money along the way, is just a failure by default.

This also leads to unnecessary conflict. One well-known independent game developer stated that, so far, there hadn’t been any hugely successful indie games developed by women. This is, as far as I know, the case – given the horribly misleading and limiting currently popular definition of the term ‘successful’. However, some people take umbrage to this declaration, since there have been many women who are successful in indie games by the standards of expression, influence, and aesthetic. Neither side of this conflict is really incorrect, but the word they’re both using is sabotaged, is suspect, is broken.

The word success doesn’t need to be tied this closely to this particular meaning. We already have the words ‘lucrative’ and ‘profitable’ to describe such financially rewarding endeavors – and isn’t it curious how different the colloquial associations we have with those terms are? ‘Lucrative’ and ‘profitable’ have an edge of immorality, of mercenary greed, of cold calculation, that “successful” just doesn’t seem to share.

Why, it’s almost as though some person with a keen eye and ear for marketing opportunities, at some point down the line, sneakily substituted ‘successful’ in for places where we would normally say ‘profitable’. It’s almost as though it were a cold, clear, concerted effort to re-brand greed as something inherently good.

After all, would you begrudge someone their success? What kind of person would that make you?

We must either redefine the word ‘success’ and bring it back into line with our personal aspirations, or those of us who defy having our worth measured in dollars must cease to use the term to describe our goals.

As things stand, I am determined to succeed – even if I must give up ‘success’ to do so.

MarioGrab

Entertainment isn’t what it used to be. Then again, it never is. Every new form of entertainment comes with new problems to solve– some of them logistical, some of them ethical, and some of them legal. Thus it is with the emerging form of the Let’s Play video– videos where players play through various games while commenting on the experience. These have become a steadily growing mainstay of video streaming sites such as youtube and are, along with competitive gaming coverage, the main reason for the existence of the streaming site twitch.tv.

Up until now, the questions of legality and ownership one might have over such a format haven’t really been forced, and the producers of the videos have happily taken whatever advertising profits are left over after the streaming site takes their cut. However, in the last week, Nintendo have begun claiming the advertising profits from let’s play videos featuring their games. They issued this statement to explain why:

“As part of our on-going push to ensure Nintendo content is shared across social media channels in an appropriate and safe way, we became a YouTube partner and as such in February 2013 we registered our copyright content in the YouTube database. For most fan videos this will not result in any changes, however, for those videos featuring Nintendo-owned content, such as images or audio of a certain length, adverts will now appear at the beginning, next to or at the end of the clips. We continually want our fans to enjoy sharing Nintendo content on YouTube, and that is why, unlike other entertainment companies, we have chosen not to block people using our intellectual property.”

CATS

This is, as far as I know, the extent of the explanation Nintendo have provided on the matter. Now, if you read that carefully, you might notice that they didn’t provide any explanation of why they chose to do what they did, just confirmed that they did it and followed it up with what looks vaguely like a threat suggesting that they could have done something much worse.

When confronted with the question, “should they have done that,” a question which seems to come up a lot in regard to intellectual property concerns, I think it’s useful to consult with my acronymic friend LEW. LEW asks:

  1. Was it Legal?
  2. Was it Ethical?
  3. Was it Wise?

So let’s look at Nintendo’s actions from that perspective.

mrhorse

No sir, I don’t like it

First: Was it legal? This is actually kind of shakey, and some have hypothesized that this very shakiness may be why Nintendo is testing the ice, in order to set a precedent for future cases with higher stakes. I’m not a legal expert by any means, but up until now Let’s Plays have been popularly regarded as transformative works and thus believed to be protected by fair use laws– the way things are going, it looks like before too long we may find out whether the courts agree. Or, perhaps, this may be resolved by another branch of the government, as congress begins investigating copyright reform. We shall see. Either way, this is an open question– for now.

Second: Was it ethical? Considering that these are solitary entertainers, trying to scrape together a living, having substantial chunks of their income taken by an international corporation, I would suspect that the answer is no, but let’s dig a bit deeper. The first point that should be established is that some of these Let’s Players do this as a full-time entertainment job– these videos, as well as other online video content, are becoming increasingly popular entry points for people who would have pursued careers in radio and television in the past. And, just as with radio and television, the fields are littered with people who tried and who couldn’t make it work, who either end up finding work elsewhere or doing it just as a hobby– for many people that’s all it ever was. My point here is twofold, though: First, it’s a tough gig, and the people who make it work as a job need all the support they can get, so being undermined like this is a slap in the face. Second, if the main draw of the videos was the game, individual talent wouldn’t matter and you’d see a roughly even distribution of viewers: This is not the case. These people are entertainers.

I guarantee you that if John Williams grabbed the money from a street musician’s tip jar because the musician dared to play the Cantina theme from Star Wars, people wouldn’t find that ethical. If a bunch of guys recorded themselves bullshitting at a party and it became a youtube sensation, the NFL would not be entitled to all of their ad revenue just because it was a Superbowl party. If a standup comedian does a set wearing a T-Shirt with a picture of Bart Simpson, Fox does not get to claim the ticket fees.

Taking candy from a baby

Oh god it works on so many levels

Oh, drat. I’ve let the legal argument get into my ethical argument, haven’t I? Well, that’s because the legal issue also raises the question: If it is legal, should it be legal? I kind of wanted to include that question, actually, but it makes it a lot harder to come up with a snappy acronym. Oh well.

Moving along, then. Third: Is it wise? Well, let’s see, Nintendo just released their biggest flop of a console since the Virtual Boy and are desperate for any advertisement or positive word of mouth they can get. Litigating against your fans is a lousy idea at the best of times, but worse timing on this is difficult to conceive. At this rate, even if they come out with an amazing first party title for the Wii U, they’ve hamstrung one of their most efficient channels of exposure. Good job guys. Super smart move there.

I think I’ve achieved my goal of putting forth a convincing argument that this tact of Nintendo’s is simultaneously a damn fool idea, a dick move, and legally questionable all in one go, but there’s two more points I’d like to make.

First: This would be much less of an issue if there were any available option between claiming all of the ad revenue and none of it. I’d be the last person to argue that Nintendo deserves none of the proceeds from channels showcasing their games, but it’s impossible to defend the premise that they deserve all of it. If there were any option available for them to take an equitable cut, we’d be in an entirely different situation. However, because it is all or nothing, because they perceive themselves to be in a situation where they can either attack their fans or let people profit from their hard work without getting any of the action, they’ve goaded themselves into taking this extraordinarily stupid action.

Tangentially, there’s a smart way Nintendo could have achieved the same goal while coming out smelling like roses: Contact every Let’s Player who produces a lot of Nintendo game content, invite them to join a Nintendo Partners’ program where they are featured on Nintendo’s website in return for a small cut of the advertising profits. I suppose that some of the saltier channels might have presented a challenge, but as things stand they have gutted the goose that lays the golden eggs, and if they want a cut of the content they’re going to have a hard time of it when everyone stops producing content since it’s now a waste of time and effort for the more established channels.

Which brings me to my second point: This is a serious fucking problem with the current state of intellectual property law. The entire purpose of copyright law in the first place was to protect content creators by guaranteeing them a chance to profit from their works and thereby give them an incentive to create, but we see now it is being used to push otherwise interested people away from creating their own work. Because the system as it is now is a product of lobbying and regulatory capture by large content creators, the law has come increasingly to favor those large creators over smaller independent authors. And, because the law is on their side, they come to wield it indiscriminately: To the man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to the man with an army of lawyers every problem looks like a truck full of bootleg merchandise.

If you’re worried about protecting your IP, next time, before you flex your muscle, ask yourself:

What would LEW say?

LEW