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Exploring Transgression

I don’t think game designers talk quite as much about player empowerment now as they used to, and that’s probably a good thing. Power, from the player’s perspective, could be said to be that which lets them affect intentional change on the game world. In practice, though, “power fantasy” usually means the offering of bigger guns with louder booms. Sometimes lip service is paid to “empowering the player to make interesting and important narrative choices” – but even then the emphasis is on the world-changing reach of those choices and the bombast of their presentation rather than their detail, granularity, or emotional impact. It’s all about pomp and circumstance, so even these loftier goals of narrative expression often reduce back down to the aforementioned bigger booms.

If players really wanted power to affect the game world, to make material changes in its construction or systems, they could manifest that with mod tools. I suspect that more than that they mostly just want the game to tell them that they’re cool, and whatever choice they made was a cool choice for cool people. Maybe that’s what the idea of power looks like in our imaginations now. That is mostly how we portray it – powerful people are cool and beat guys up and everyone loves them, even as these traits have no intrinsic connection to power but for the associations we’ve built over decades of cinema. We’re chasing the fulfillment of this meaningless aesthetic shell of power, and we’re doomed never to find it.

The tragedy of the human mind is that it can only desire the idea of a thing, never the thing itself, and thus can never be satiated. There will always be a vast gap between love and the idea of love, wealth and the idea of wealth, food and the idea of food, and so any desire for these, unanchored by specificity, will soon become a wound that will never close. These unfulfillable desires are the sites of our greatest triumphs and of our greatest evils. The chase after ethereal half-remembered visions may power our art, but it still hurts to realize those dreams can never be reached – the itch can be scratched only enough to allay it, not to cure it. At the same time, the love of the idea of wealth, the idea of safety, the idea of purity, the raw desire for these unattainable ideas leads us to collectively leap off cliffs over and over. It’s like the idea of the love of money being the root of all evil: The love of any abstract idea over the reality it’s meant to represent will lead to great harm.

It is an important lesson all too often neglected that not all desires are meant to be fulfilled. The American dream, the American promise, is that dreams are made to be fulfilled and if you can climb to the top it can all be yours. So we have a system where the people on top, with more reason to be happy and satiated than anyone else in the world, still find themselves as far as ever from the ideas and fantasies and desires that brought them to this point, and the only answer is to seek more. More what? Who knows.

That’s only to speak of the desires that can’t be fulfilled. In addition, there’s whole classes of desire that oughtn’t be fulfilled – for violence and domination and cruelty, for destruction of the self and destruction of others. Most people learn somewhere along the line to keep these in check – to, perhaps, think lovingly of their dreams of mayhem while scrupulously ensuring that they remain dreams. If, however, you’ve been taught that your wealth and power ought allow you to realize any dream, and that the only thing that should ever stand in the way of these dreams is insufficient wealth and power…

It’s time to wake up. Not only can we not always get what we want, what we actually want is to want. Past a certain point it becomes your responsibility to parse out those desires that can be attained from those that must be simulated, and those that can be safely and responsibly chased from those which intrinsically cause human suffering to pursue.

This really shouldn’t be that hard.

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I’ve been thinking about empathy, and about the role it plays in game design. There’s a fair amount of discussion of ‘empathy games’ – games created by and from the perspective of marginalized creators, games created to push you into another person’s proverbial shoes to walk a proverbial mile. Different versions of these have emerged, from games that attempt to simulate a life of one random person on the globe, based on statistical modeling, to games about one specific person’s specific experience and their understanding of it. Much digital ink has been spilled, as well, advocating that these games are the way towards a more understanding and empathetic future, with implied better outcomes for the communities represented by those games.

That’s not really what I want to talk about, though it’s an important thing to touch on. Most of the lofty rhetoric around these games has borne little fruit – it turns out that walking a mile in a person’s shoes doesn’t really tell you much about them, because you’re still walking with your legs and perceiving the world through your eyes. You can tell yourself that you’ve come to understand them, but all you’ve done is constructed an effigy of them for your imagination to occupy. It is far from empathy. Often, if these games involve significant choice, they end up being turned into min-max exercises by the player – coming to understand the single optimal strategy for ‘winning’ the game, trivializing a life full of uncertainties and incomplete information into an obstacle course to be solved. And, of course, the end result of these gameable ‘lives’ is the exact opposite of empathy, feeding directly into a sort of just-world fallacy.

However, even before we encounter these high level issues with the ideas underpinning empathy games, let’s question an even more basic assumption: Does empathy lead to kindness?

Empathy is the process of understanding what another creature is thinking and feeling. This is something we do all the time, and is a vital survival tool. All interpersonal interaction is some degree of empathetic, where we are predicting reactions and trying to feed back into those, verbally or otherwise. All communication could be seen, then, as a sort of formalized empathy, codifying and expressing internal processes to make them easier for others to engage with, while they provide the same service in return.

This is lovely, but it reveals a dark truth: Just as there’s nothing inherently kind or morally good about language itself, there’s nothing inherently kind or morally good about empathy itself. Certainly I believe that those most able and inclined to be empathetic are, on average, better moral actors: They understand the potentially painful outcome of their decisions better and they have a conception of shared moral reality that extends beyond their immediate purview. I also believe the same is, on average, true of people who are good at interpersonal communications, for much the same reason. This is not the same thing as these tools being intrinsically or always good or moral. You can use your bone-deep understanding of another person’s mental state for anticipation, for manipulation, for exploitation. We like to describe these sorts of mental domination tactics as being completely separate from what empathy is, but they seem like two sides of the same coin to me.

Of course, even using empathy aggressively is not inherently immoral. We do it all the time when we play games! In something like a fighting game against a single opponent, you’re constantly trying to understand, predict, and counter their every decision. Fighting game players sometimes call this ‘yomi’, Japanese for ‘reading’, meaning to read the mind of their opponent, but it seems like empathy to me: Every form of understanding the mind, decision-making, and emotional state of another creature seems, to me, to be a form of empathy.

This is part of why we love to compete – for the same reason we love conversation, because it allows us to understand and express bits and pieces of our collective minds to each other. The process of competition is much the same as the process of conversation: “What do you want?” “What do you expect?” “How can I accommodate these desires and expectations?” or even “How can I shape these desires and expectations?” These are questions which, in some form or another, go through one’s mind both in cordial social interactions and during an intense competitive game. Both situations have as well a degree of subterfuge – sometimes you have to conceal your feelings, your desires, your plans, either for some sort of competitive advantage or just to spare someone else discomfort.

Even single-player games interface with this desire for connection. In stealth games, for example, you’re constantly trying to understand where people are around you, where they’re going, what they’re trying to achieve, and how much they know about where you are and what you’re doing. The behaviors controlling these opponents are extremely simple because there tend to be quite a few such opponents and the penalties for failure are often high, but the basic flow of understanding “what is it that this entity understands and desires?” is still present. Because these behaviors are so basic, however, they often end up feeling arbitrary – most enemies immediately can tell the difference between your footsteps and their friends’ from two rooms away, but will observe a door that’s meant to be locked swinging open without reacting.

This is, I think, a very subtle thing that players responded to in the Dark Souls and affiliated series: Though enemy behaviors are extremely simple, they do seem to be placed and scripted as though their intent were to defeat the player rather than, as is the case with many enemies in other games, to be dramatically and satisfyingly defeated. Similarly, the enemy behavior is just sophisticated enough that you can watch them decide on an attack based on your relative positions, then seek to execute that attack and respond to it, creating something akin to a very primitive version of the sensation of fighting games’ ‘yomi’. Of course, many players dislike these traps and ambushes and tactics, seeing in them not a malicious opponent but a malicious game designer – which is, I suppose, also the case.

All these single-player examples, though, are of games which encourage you to understand the intent of extremely basic characters and creatures. Even if they’re presented as clever entities like humans in the narrative layer, usually they end up coming off as simple-minded simply because of the limitations of their development. Most games don’t bother creating rich interior lives for their characters – for the simple reason that most players wouldn’t notice if they had. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a character behave somewhat convincingly, to make them pace and mutter and run towards loud noises and yell and shoot, but it takes a lot to make them understand their world, formulate goals, and act to achieve them.

Still, it’s worth thinking about what we might do to create a simulation sophisticated enough to be worth empathizing with in a deeper and more elaborate way. First, let’s think about how a creature or person takes action:

This is a chart of what decision-making might look like to an entity. The entity’s self is represented by the red box: Every creature has innate desires and certain information about the world it occupies. For living creature these desires would be subject to change based on that information, but let’s just say this simulation is taking place across little enough time that these desires remain more or less constant. The creature’s information changes based on its observations of the world, and the information combined with the creature’s desires combine to create a plan of action to achieve those desires. The plan results in actions it takes, which change the world around it, and so forth. Left to its devices the creature would steadily achieve its objectives (assuming its plans were any good), but there’s also an unknowable quantity of other creatures whose actions are also affecting the world in ways which change the flow of information, constantly requiring new plans.

Thus, if we wanted to create a compelling set of artificial behaviors, we’d need three tools:

1) Information. How does the creature perceive the world? What can it see and hear, and how does it parse this into usable data?

2) Desire. This is probably the simplest, just create a world state (or set of such states) that the creature wishes to achieve or maintain – the difficulty of this step is in formulating it such a way that it can be used for the next step.

3) Plan. This is the tough one. How do you synthesize the information and desire into a plan of action?

We usually don’t model anything like that in games because it’s overkill. If you create a set of creature behaviors capable of inferring from subtle information, players will often feel like it’s cheating; whereas if you create a set of random behaviors players will often infer a reason for that behavior. Sometimes the cruder and more artificial behavior set ends up feeling more real. However, when we don’t bother to emulate any internal life, we create seams: Creatures ignore information which they aren’t scripted to notice, react bizarrely to edge cases, and while all of these may be nearly impossible problems to effectively solve I think it would be neat if we tried. If we had, as we strained to make ever more photo-realistic worlds, established methods for giving characters perceived knowledge of their environment, a set of desires, a method of formulating plans, would it then be very difficult to create opponents which feel real and substantial? Perhaps even human? If players feel AI that is too smart is cheating, is that just an artifact of the strained pseudo-fidelity of modern games, where everything looks photo-real but nothing meaningfully reacts to the things happening around them?

There’s a natural, easy joy to competition, to testing each other and understanding each other and exceeding each other, which largely doesn’t exist in single-player experiences. What we have instead of competition is naked challenge, a kind of lurid hyper-competition which strips away all the ‘boring’ parts – and, in the end, gives us targets rather than opponents, conquests rather than contests. This is fine. It’s not like these games can’t be fun and interesting and even thought-provoking. And yet I can’t help but wonder what these games would look like today if we’d ever been taught to look at their casts of characters as anything aside from predators or prey.

Of course, even if we gave every creature motivation and observation, there would still be something missing: Empathy. If we wanted to create realistic behavior, we’d also have to give creatures some capacity to observe each other directly, predict actions, and act preemptively based on those observations. Maybe we’d even start to feel bad for massacring them.

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We think of art as something which we create and then put out in the world, where it affects others and perhaps, in some small way, changes them. What we often ignore or disregard is that in addition to being agents of change we are also change’s clients: Everything we create creates us in turn, and when you gaze long into an empty Word document the empty Word document gazes also into you. It can be difficult to determine who your audience is. Are you writing letters to yourself, or to yet-unknown friends who are similar to who you believe you once were? Are you making art as a byproduct of pursuing ideas and aesthetics you find interesting and edifying, perhaps just publishing research notes on unquantifiable subjects in case anyone else might find them useful?

Something I’ve begun worrying about a lot more over the last few years is what it is, exactly, that we choose to put out into the world with our art. It’s true that you can never really know the impact that something will have until it’s out there having it (and sometimes not even then), but the impact of a work starts where the work itself starts: In the artist.

In you.

We’re all guinea pigs for our own medicines, and though their effects may vary from patient to patient we can still catalog those effects we can observe. Perhaps all this seems like it’s trending gravitationally towards some grand moral injunction against putting ‘harmful’ material into art, against the harms one might do oneself in the name of art, but I resist that gravity. Sometimes medicine is just a small quantity of poison; sometimes poison is just an overdose of medicine.

You are patient zero. Does your art hurt? Does it hurt in a way that brings enlightenment, that helps to decrypt the pain inscribed into the workings of the world? Or is it just a hurt that leaves you wanting to pass that hurt on to others, to chisel pain into stone, codify it into law, make it permanent? Does your art bring comfort? Is it the comfort of seeing that better worlds are possible and that we might yet reach them one day, or is it the comfort of sitting on the throne of skulls that already undergirds this world?

We cannot evaluate the moral trajectory of a piece of art by how it makes us feel, only by how it leads us to interpret those feelings, what it leads us to understand about them, and how that understanding leads us to act. There are certain very important ideas, probably, that can be solely or most effectively expressed through the medium of schlocky horror or saccharine simplistic fables, can only be expressed through ultra-violent action scenes, idiotic comedies, impenetrable art films – and each of these perhaps excels at portraying a specific moral understanding, any one of them may be, by happenstance, the only correct format for the parable that’s taken hold of your heart.

We must, indeed, take care what we put out into the world, what we express into the abyss – but, having taken care, we must express it however we can, whether it be through blood and guts or love and lust or cute and sweet or strange and opaque. Develop the moral clarity to understand where you see the world from and what that means, and then express that in whatever terms are most comfortable to you, no matter how others regard them.

After all, you’re the guinea pig – these experimental results will have no value if you cannot interpret their meaning.

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Something I used to think about a lot was what we mean when we use the term ‘free will.’ Some people argue a great deal over whether it exists, which has always seemed a bit silly to me: The so-called paradox of free will emerges from a conflation of control and causality. The reasoning goes: If god/nature created us and defined all our circumstances, and these circumstances define the outcome of our decisions, then god/nature control the outcome of our lives. This is all true, and does absolutely nothing to undermine the concept of free will – not any more than our parents and culture determining our material circumstances, and thus being able to predict our reactions to them, manage to do. Everyone has reasons why they made decisions, but even if you know all the reasons I make a decision, even if you can predict my decisions perfectly, even if you have control over these factors and can manipulate them to elicit the reactions you desire, they remain my decisions. The act of deciding is not dependent upon the unknowability of the outcome or the sanctity of my inner desires.

We still decide. Even if our decisions can be predicted or manipulated, they are still decisions.

As game designers, we take on the roles of god and nature in this dichotomy. Every player comes to the game with their own unique background, their assumptions and attitudes, predilections and preferences, and to even interest them in playing in the first place you must learn to meet them where they are, to translate the core appeal of the game into terms they’ll be able to understand and to appreciate. In this process you attempt to shape their understanding of the game and its world to control how they respond to it.

All of this, of course, for their own good.

This is how most people play games, constrained by the conception of the game to which they are first introduced, bound in comprehension by the tutorial. This is how, they see, the game is intended to be played. Other sorts of players, though, such as play-testers and speed-runners, perceive the game in a completely different way, bound not by the conceptual limitations of its depicted world but solely by the enforced constraints of its actual programming.

The first lesson in freedom is that if you can learn to see the world as it exists, rather than as it is described, you have many more options available to you.

Of course, just saying that doesn’t amount to much of substance. Every dollar-store proto-fascist cult leader knows how to tell their followers that they’re the sole enlightened ones, that they’ve slipped the bonds of society and that the world is cracked open to them like an oyster. This sort of person generally causes Problems, and so by-and-large we agree to stick to the rules of society, no matter how flawed and spurious they may be. This remains the case even as others in power break these rules rapidly and without remorse. This remains the case even as these rules are twisted and bent into cruel mockeries of what they once were.

The main difference between a cheater and a speed-runner, between a modder and a hacker, is not in the content of their actions but in the content of the game, and how those actions affect others. The sin of flaunting the rules to get further ahead only applies when those rules apply to bind others further behind. It follows, then, that rules are only useful so long as they, in aggregate, protect the most vulnerable among us – and, when they fail to do so, it becomes morally neutral to disregard them and, what’s more, when they exist almost entirely to serve the needs of those in power it becomes a moral imperative to first break them, and then to dismantle them.

A cycle emerges: Rules, a society, are created; most people abide by these rules; a few break them for personal gain; those who gain in this way thereby acquire the capacity to modify the rules; the rules cease to serve the people; the people cease to regard the rules; society collapses. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess where we’re at right now on this cycle, but suffice it to say that once it passes a certain point just removing a few of the most visibly worst people isn’t going to do much to actually solve the problem.

At this moment, it feels like relatively few people are the correct degree of alarmed. The sky is not yet falling, but neither is it anchored firmly in place. The rules have been compromised, but we are not bound by them – and, even as everything we are and believe has been shaped by the misguided hands of false gods and our worst natures, we can decide. The rules must be rewritten. Our futures cannot be constrained to the laws formed to maintain power in the hands of those who grasp fastest and most brutally. Do not give up. Do not have faith. Nothing is over, but nothing is working, few things lost irrevocably but few things guaranteed. Be exactly the correct amount of scared: That which lets you fight back. Let’s try to all survive these interesting times together, to write a new book of rules.

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Big things are happening. The sheer cruelty of the systems that drive the world have been laid bare, and right now people are trying to see if they’re going to find a way to somehow sweep the blood under the rug again.

I’m thinking about cop games and other media, which tend to disturb me not so much for how they portray police – though these portrayals are often misleading – but for how they portray ‘criminals’, as a discrete class of human being who is inherently dangerous and who needs to be addressed by violent means that belong to police alone. This ‘criminal’, a person who is solely predator and never prey, solely acting and never acted upon, existing only to satiate unknowable personal greeds and lusts, for the most part simply doesn’t exist. However, most police media requires his presence, so despite Crime Man’s scarcity in the real world he is ubiquitous in media.

I suspect many of you do not believe me. We all hear about terrible crimes, and I need not go into the grisly and horrible particulars of these, and wonder “what sort of person would do these things” – and the specter of Crime Man pops into your mind. Though these crimes may seem inexplicable violations of social norms and common decency, most of them manifest within some degree of social sanction. We have cultural narratives for violence against women, against children, we have cultural narratives for the importance of money above all else, we have cultural narratives of hate and racial supremacy, and every day we’re actors looking for roles, and every day there’s a casting call.

This might sound like it seeks to justify the horrible actions that people take. There’s a difference between explaining and justifying. What I want to explain is that no action comes from nowhere. Every action emerges from the roles people expect themselves to play in society. So we end up with a few people who, due to whatever their circumstances are, take on the role of Crime Man, because Crime Man is such a potent cultural archetype. We view these criminal acts as transgressions against law and against society – but, most of the time, they are calculated choices for either personal or cultural survival, and are made within the context of societal narratives.

However, as long as we believe in Crime Man, we must also believe in Police Man as the solution to Crime Man.

This is the core problem with police media, even beyond the naively benign portrayal of the police themselves. The characters who the cops pursue and punish are criminals, with any other characteristics being secondary to that, and their very existence justifies the core concept of what the police are and do. As long as this is the extent of how we understand crime, the underlying structure cannot be fixed.

If we are alone, and we are dissatisfied, we can change the scene – either by traveling or adapting the world to suit ourselves. If we are with a few other people, it is usually still possible to convince them to enact some sort of change to relieve the pressure – but, as the number of people increases and increases and increases, the world comes to seem more static, less mutable. Systems of management are devised and implemented, and as the number of people involved in creating these systems increase and their responsibilities diverge these systems, as well, come to seem distant and immutable

Nothing is actually any more permanent than before – actually, probably less so, since we have a tendency to affect fairly rapid change on our environment – but our perception of our ability to intentionally effect these changes fades. Like we’re all trying to push a large rock, none of us really feel like we’re affecting any change – and yet the rock moves. Even those with undeniable power seem to buy into the illusion – to our collective ruin, since rapacious consumption becomes that much easier to justify when one can internally believe the environment to be immutable. You cannot destroy a world that cannot be changed.

It’s a kind of incentivized reasoning. If the world can be changed, then that means we might be making it worse. If the world can be changed, then we have an obligation to make it better. If the world can be changed, but we have no actual capacity to change it ourselves, then we are imprisoned. None of these notions are pleasant to think about.

So we don’t.

We proceed on the assumption that the world is constant, that any changes we make are superficial. We know this to not be true, now, based on our effects on the climate, but the basic belief still lingers: We might, we reason, be able to change the world if we had control, but we don’t have control, our societal structures do – then we feel powerless to change those, in turn, achieving the same basic effect.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The implied burden of of this power for change is too much for any single person, and so movements must be built around it. The American spirit of rugged individualism tends to work against this necessity. This is probably not an accident.

When we make game worlds to live in for entertainment, they are also mostly static, with some notable exceptions. Even for those games where we can readily change our environment, though, such as Minecraft, we seldom have any significant effect on the underlying systems of these environments. You can carve away chunks of the world, replant it with greenery, open up dimensional portals, but you can’t really change how anything lives or dies, moves or acts. This is fine: Implementing a truly adaptable system like this would be a massive technical and artistic undertaking, but it’s telling how few games even try, or see this as a gap.

One notable exception to this trend I can think of is Dwarf Fortress, a game which is notorious for systematizing everything to an extent that becomes baffling and overwhelming. A careless decision can lead to a base getting flooded with lava or invaded by hippopotamuses. Other useful comparison points are the classic MUD (Multi User Dungeon) games, which allowed players to create their own regions with their own rules, and Second Life, a 3d successor to these primarily notorious for providing a playground for virtual sexual exploits.

Dynamic world games are still rarely respected by “hard core gamers,” though – either treated as impenetrable novelties like Dwarf Fortress, childish playgrounds like Minecraft, or both, as is the case with Second Life. No matter how popular these games may be, they’re always understood to be outside the mainstream of what games are and what gamers want.

What we want, what we are meant to want, is to take what we are given and enjoy it, and to strenuously avoid thinking about the possibilities of change and what they might imply.

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Most games are competitive in nature – some might argue that as part of the definition of game, that anything that isn’t competitive is really a puzzle or some other sort of interactive entertainment. What the word ‘competition’ even means in a simulated environment isn’t necessarily obvious, though: Some games have very direct competition between human players – most traditional games and sports fall into this category, alongside multiplayer shooter and real-time strategy games and so forth – but, more recently, video games have created the ability to have simulated competition, other entities which act like competing players but which don’t require a person to provide the input. One could regard these as, since they’re not actually being controlled by a person, being essentially a puzzle to be solved rather than in competition – but they are presented as competition, and provide much of the same sort of satisfaction that we seek from competition.

What many single-player games then boil down to is a sort of competition pornography, a way of simulating an interaction between people in an experience built for just one person. The problems that emerge in these interactions tend to be the same as those that emerge with pornography– the sensations most desirable in the interaction become isolated, then amplified, then exaggerated to grotesque proportion. That which was meant to be intimate becomes raucous, that which was meant to negotiate dictates, and that which was meant to be understanding becomes controlling. This isn’t inherently a problem – it’s fine to enjoy ridiculous exaggerated entertainment as long as we understand it to be entertainment – until it becomes the default, the status quo. When we solely understand conflict and competition through obscene hyper-competition, just as when we understand sex through contrived hyper-sex, we begin to cede the ability to understand how to actually interact with other human beings.

Most of us can figure it out, anyway, but the more artistic license and exaggeration that is taken, the more it feeds into a solipsistic view of human interaction. What separates a game that is grotesquely hyper-competitive from any other competitive game? Is it possible to create a game that simulates the sensation of competing with another person without implicitly boiling human lives and interactions down into insultingly simplified systems? The question of how to portray something meaningful without suggesting that it has only the meaning we assign to it is one that rests at the core of art. How can we reduce something to its appearance, to a set of symbols, to a series of words or interactions or moments, without removing something vital? How can you taxidermy emotion?

The presentation of a game as competition doesn’t rest in any one place within the game. The mechanics contribute by creating opponents with similar capabilities to the player, the presentation contributes by making them look and sound like a person, and the narrative contributes by giving them motives and backgrounds that place them in opposition with the player. Most single-player games function by generating a huge field of completely committed enemies that are categorically opposed to the player and whose only call and only response is lethal violence – which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is also extremely limiting. Even in most games where they are motivated to oppose the player through more robust systems, enemy NPCs rarely prioritize protection, preservation, escape, or survival as tactical goals – they merely flip a switch over to hostile and attempt to fight the player to the death.

What makes this uncomfortable now is how often we see real groups of real people portrayed this same way. There are those, so the rhetoric goes, whose way of life is inherently incompatible with ours; there are invaders; there are gangsters, there are born criminals, there are those whose only understanding of the world is through violence, and to defeat them we must become the same and only understand the world through violence against them. While I love much of what we have achieved artistically within the medium of electronic entertainment, it has become terrifying to see the rhetoric of dehumanization and the necessary evils of simulated competition slowly grow and knit their leaves together until they become so similar.

It is not the violence that is the problem. It is the understanding of violence as an inevitable consequence of an inevitable action, of the world as a zero-sum game, that is the problem. It is coming to no longer see these contrivances and assumptions as assumed or contrived that has become the problem. Of course it’s not the games that are to blame, and it’s not the competition that has made the world a blood sport. The systems these games are made of are just revealing, and reinforcing, the things we have believed all along.

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MotherNight.jpg

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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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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