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paintedworldbridge

The scariest thing about art to me now is not the tyranny of the blank page, but the certainty when I begin that I have no real idea where I’m going.

I have meticulously planned out every moment of my game, and right now the version of it in my head is good but I don’t think it’s great. This is scary to me, because this is a huge chunk of my life to spend on something if I’m not going to be satisfied with the result – I suppose that’s true for a lot of game development, but since I’m not sharing the development with a team all that weight falls squarely on my head. However, what I know about art and what I know about game development is that the magic isn’t in the plan, it’s in the moment of creation, in the poignant details and pivotal moments.

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower said, plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable. Every decision I make now is still going to be important, just not important in the ways I expect. There’s a butterfly’s lifetime worth of hurricanes between here and there, and my control over how this plays out is simultaneously absolute and negligible.

Right now, I have the blueprints for a bridge, but I don’t know where I’m going to be building it or what I’m going to be building it out of. With what I have now, I know that – depending on what comes next – it could either collapse or it could create a pathway to someplace no one has ever been before, and which of those happens depends partially on me, my expertise and artistic instinct, but just as much on chance and happenstance.

And I have to build it. This is how the job is done. This is how art is made.

We walk by falling forwards into each new step, over and over again*. To expect to be ready for the fall, to be certain of the recovery, is too much to ask, so each step we take forward is a tiny leap of faith. We keep doing it because to do otherwise is to stand in place, and any room can be purgatory if you stand there long enough, and with each moment you wait to take a step your legs will just get heavier.

So what I’m saying is that this is scary, and I think my game could be bad, but it’s also necessary, and I think my game could be great – and that I expect to always feel this way, forever, even after EverEnding, and that if I ever lose this feeling then something has gone wrong, and I will find that all of a sudden I am standing in place – and, even if the scenery looks like it’s moving, it’s just the flickering of a screen that someone forgot to turn off. Then it’s time to walk, or fall, again.

*Thanks Laurie Anderson

cornucopia

Thanksgiving was a couple of days ago, but I’m still feeling the holiday spirit, such as it is.

Thanksgiving is a good holiday wrapped in a bad holiday. It’s a time for coming together and taking stock of the many good things that we are lucky enough to have, wrapped in a horrific lie about a dinner party with the people we murdered and enslaved. America is weird. Maybe it’s that every country likes to lie about itself but our lies are still fresh enough to be clearly disproven and false, I don’t know. We couldn’t bury the lie, it’s still cracking out of the ground like a telltale heart, and that’s where we are now.

Anyway.

Things have been strange, and bad, and promising to get stranger and worse. It’s a good time for gratitude. It’s a good time to be happy to be alive and able to live a fairly fulfilling life, and I wish more people could do so, and I get furious thinking about all the ways in which they can’t, and it just keeps on coming up once you see it, the magic eye trick doesn’t go away, the 3d picture comes right out of the page and grabs you by the neck. Every nice thing you see, you can’t stop wondering how much blood went into it, and whose, and when. Everything has become so diffuse – we act not just as people but as part of an economy, and when that economy plunders we are culpable.

The problem with seeing more threads is its so easy to imagine your hands tied. All I want is to make interesting and beautiful, albeit perhaps sometimes disturbing, things. To paint a path to another world, to show the silhouettes of our flaws and aspirations.

I’ve never been one of those people who takes objects apart to see how they work – I’ve always been the sort who wants to make interesting things happen, and only care about the inner workings of objects insofar as that leads into the interesting things those objects do. However, when your artistic medium is one as technical as video games, that means looking at how things work, or fail to work, a lot. And it’s a hard habit to turn off. To design a game is to tie two systems together – one, a mechanical system that is predictable and quantifiable but quite complex, and the other is a system of incentives and desires, a system of which the player is the center piece, which is unquantifiable and much much more complex. If you play enough with a critical eye, you see where systems break down and stop working, where challenges stop being fair, where lazy strategies dominate.

I can’t look anywhere now without seeing broken systems. A world of paintings hung slightly askew. The problem, the big meta-problem, is that there’s no clear way to fix these systems. You could perfectly identify what was going wrong and an optimal solution, create a plan that would definitely and demonstrably work to fix the issue, and end up no closer to actually solving the problem. That’s politics, baby.

There’s a good reason it works that way. Imagine you have absolute power. Whoops, you just divided by 0, the world crashed. Fuckin owned, scrub. We make sure lots of other people have a chance to look at the systems that are created, get their own say, and that the whole thing has to go through a process designed to weed out more bad ideas than produce good ones, just because we don’t want to see another crash.

That’s what it’s designed to do, anyway. Design, like intent, is not magic, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which turn out to be exceptionally easy on the soles of bad people. We’ve got a memory leak – the memories of past crashes leak right out of our heads, and things fall apart, the center puts us on hold, and we all join the Cassandra Club.

Still, I’m grateful, really. I’m still around to look at the mess, and I can be one of the billions of hands on the steering wheel, even if it feels too late to swerve. I can still make art. I can still survive. It’s something. For a while it may be everything.

bubblesI’m having a hard time formulating this as one essay. I’m just pulling some of the thoughts that have been flitting around my head like moths drawn to fire all week. This is going to be kind of a scattershot approach to discussing these issues, but it’s the best I can do right now.

I’m sorry. I wish I could offer better.

I don’t know where to start. I want to talk about PAX, the dickwolves controversy, privilege, transphobia, misogyny… I want to talk about us, about how we treat each other, about the dividing boundaries we draw between ourselves that allow us to be cruel, to be dismissive, to be inhumane… I want to talk about empathy.

It’s kind of a big topic. It’s kind of the topic of how to be a human who can coexist with other human beings. I have no right to speak on this with any sort of authority. No one does. But, at the same time, we need to say something, everyone who can see the boundaries needs to trace over them for others to see, even if we perhaps disagree on the precise placement of those boundaries.

dave_chappelle_01

1. Comedy

For instance, here’s something many people will disagree with me on: I don’t believe that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with making a rape joke. However, it’s a narrow path to walk, utilizing humor that invokes rape without trivializing it or making some of your audience feel unsafe. It’s not easy. And anyone who isn’t willing to face that challenge head-on should probably not bother telling such jokes, because odds are they’re just being a dick, just making someone’s day worse – someone who has already had too many bad days.

Humor is always a narrow path. It’s always precarious balancing between mocking some facet of the iniquity of our society and mocking those who are victimized by it, and often that decision is made by the audience instead of the comic. Dave Chappelle found this out the hard way. Jokes mocking the institutions of racism, the ludicrous stereotypes we paint over our fellow human beings, the ways we ignore and dismiss, were interpreted by certain audiences as being jokes making fun of those who are affected by these institutions, these stereotypes, this dismissal. He was forced to reevaluate his act when he found himself drawing entirely the wrong laughter from entirely the wrong fans.

This is probably why feminists have a reputation for having no sense of humor. Inviting people to laugh with you, all too often, is read as an invitation for them to laugh at you.

If this is the case, why would we laugh at potentially hurtful humor at all? Why not leave racism and sexism and rape and torture and child abuse and whatever horrible thing we do to each other out of our jokes completely? Well… Jokes are more than entertainment. Jokes are important. Jokes are frequently a sign that something somewhere is going wrong, and all we can do is point and laugh. We learn from them. Sometimes they can change the world. For the better or for the worse. It is a terrible responsibility, sometimes…

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Dickwolves

2. Privilege

Whenever someone is called out as having said something hurtful or biased, a certain segment of the world views this as censorship. Asking someone to apologize for saying something, to perhaps consider retracting it and replacing it with something else in future editions, isn’t censorship. The term applies solely to those in a position of power forcing others to withhold or retract statements. There is, however, the related phenomenon of silencing, where people in a position of social power exert pressure to keep those in a weaker position from speaking their minds. This is, curiously, not something which those who call out people for saying hurtful things are generally accused of – likely because even acknowledging the phenomenon would undermine the privileged position of those who cry censorship.

Privilege is an important concept. It’s a way to put words to the biases that we know are inherent to our society and culture, a single word that encapsulates the idea that we do not all start with the same advantages and disadvantages. It is also a dangerous concept in the wrong hands: As with any concept that aids people in drawing dividing lines, aids in defining an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, it can create two sides in a war of words that can have only one victor. It can become a path to judging someone by their background instead of their character.

Everyone has problems. Everyone. And though their problems may seem petty to you, they’re still problems for them. Many of those who seem to declare that their experience must not be devalued are quick to, seemingly, devalue the experience of others. Perhaps the worries of an artist that they can’t freely express themselves seem petty to those who fear for their physical safety, but an artist who cannot express herself has her very identity threatened. It may not, indeed, be as severe a problem, but it is a real one and one which demands some empathy from those who wish others to be empathetic to their own problems.

I just… I want everybody to be able to view each other as human beings. And I know we’re so fucking far from that happening, so far that we need to address gender, address privilege, address bias and sexuality and race and identity and all of these little identifiable pieces of the personalities that we have gathered, because we live in a society that isn’t yet ready to take all of these as they come, at face value, without hate or reservation. But I also know that, if we’re ever going to cross the finish line, if we’re ever going to actually realize a truly equal society where everyone is just another human being, each with their own quirks of personality and identity, we will need to set aside this rhetoric. We will need to erase these boundaries. We will need to burst our bubbles and be ourselves instead of groups banded together by face-mask identities.

Someday. But not yet.

e pluribus unum

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

And just look how happy he is!

There’s a huge subject I’d like to tackle, but it’s a bit difficult for me to pin down. It’s something I feel very strongly about, and because I feel so strongly it tends to bleed into a lot of apparently disparate areas of my life. I’d like to begin by talking a little bit about video game violence– but that isn’t where I want to end up. This is simply the most ready point of contact between this subject and the games discussion that generally drives my writing on Problem Machine. This is going to be the first part of a series, and I don’t know how long this series will go on for and I don’t know what it will encompass. I’m exploring my own ideas on these subjects even as I try to construct arguments, which is… really exciting now that I think about it.

We’ve all gotten used to periodic furors over violence in video game content. Even though Jack Thompson, once an endless fountain of specious criticism and controversy, has been spectacularly discredited, there are plenty willing to blame video games for rises in violent crime– curiously, these complaints seemed to peak in frequency when violent crime was at an all time low and, now that it’s back on the rise due to economic factors (as always), they have been less prevalent. Go figure. They’ll be back though, and not without some justification, though this can be hard to see from the position we sit in. In fact, the same perspective that makes it difficult for those who play games frequently to engage with these criticisms may actually grant them some validity. Read More

Okay, I’ve noticed that Fridays tend to be a) busy and b) tiring, which is making it kind of hard to write a good essay at the end of the day. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to write something up to my, uh, exacting quality standards over the next 15 minutes, so I’m pushing back today’s essay to tomorrow morning. And, from now on, I’m going to be targeting all Saturday morning articles for Sunday mornings, which still gives me two days to work on Tuesday articles when applicable.

So, new schedule (all updates 10am PST):

Week A:

Tuesday: Life in the Machine

Thursday: DevBlog

Sunday: Developing Events

Week B:

Thursday: DevBlog

Sunday: Diagnosticism

 

I still don’t like some of those names, but I still haven’t thought of anything I like better to replace them with. Oh well.

A few weeks ago Steam came out with their hotly if somewhat anxiously anticipated Greenlight system, and so far it’s… definitely a thing? I wanted to talk about this a couple of weeks ago, but at the time I wanted to talk about ‘girlfriend mode’ more. In the meanwhile, things have settled down a bit, but for a while the debate was pretty heated over whether Greenlight was a good idea, a bad idea, or just an idea that needed a lot of work.

Chapter One: A Throne of Games

So, for those possibly hypothetical readers who aren’t familiar with the situations: Steam is the foremost digital distribution platform for PC games, and one of the major factors driving both the PC market in general and the particular economic success of a lot of games, particularly indie games which can’t afford a big marketing budget. In short, getting on Steam is a huge deal– Like “my garage band just got signed for a multi-million dollar contract” huge. Read More