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thomaswasalone

The mechanics of a game shape our perception of its characters. Samus, of the Metroid series, was perceived as stoic and resourceful, largely because the design of Metroid demanded resourcefulness of its players and had no real way to express personality or character. When Other M came out, an entry in the series that focused more on plot and less on scavenging in a hostile world, many people felt that Samus was out of character – particularly outside of Japan, where supplemental materials like comics had built additional characterization that made the adjustment less jarring.

It’s an inversion of role-playing, where the role gets built around play rather than the play built around the role. The way the character moves, accelerates, jumps – or the way the character interacts with NPCs, rescues or threatens or kills – or the way the character solves puzzles, pushes blocks or finds secret passages – these come to define the character, much the same as the ways the character chooses to dress or speak. Because these mechanics themselves emerge from the personality of the designers, the level designers and gameplay programmers and artists and musicians, the thumbprint is unique and difficult to replicate. Each game has a unique personality, and to a substantial degree the personality of the protagonist is just the personality of the game, anthropomorphized, in a way that no amount of supplemental storytelling materials or promotional tie-ins can mitigate.

It raises an interesting question: How do we express character within games, and is it possible to change the way a game plays while leaving the personality of its protagonist intact? The difficulty this hints at, the intimate tie between the a way a game can be experienced and the protagonist who is expressed, may hint at why so many adapted properties, games-of-movies and games-of-tv-shows and games-of-comics, feel so unsatisfying. And perhaps, as well, this is why it feels so strange when the sequel to a game doesn’t adhere closely to the design of its predecessor: A feeling, when playing, that not only is this game not quite the game you played before, but neither is this character the character that you thought you knew.

It’s not necessarily a problem. With the current trend of rebooting old series, the characterization brought in by new mechanics can be exciting and invigorating in its own right. In the original Prince of Persia games, there’s very little explicit characterization – however, because of the realistic action and animation and the extremely lethal gameplay, the protagonist ends up mostly coming off as a hapless victim to be guided to safety by the player. Conversely, in the ‘Sands of Time’ reboot, the newfound focus on beautiful acrobatic maneuvers and on negating the lethality of mistakes through more forgiving game design dovetailed into the character of a relaxed, affable, and confident prince. However, when the sequel to that game decided to focus more on combat, the prince became less affable and more angry – in each case, the characterization was clearly led by game design decisions, but came to manifest as a character the player could relate to, as the obstacles and achievements of the player were manifested through those the protagonist faced within the story.

Your character is a character long before she begins to look like one – before design, before graphics, before sound or writing, when she’s just a cube or capsule sliding around in a testing environment, even then she begins to take form as a personality, just by the little numeric changes you make to define her motion.

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.

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

TheCritic2

The more we think about how we tend to experience art, the more we’re forced to notice how little of our experience comes from the piece itself. This is not to devalue the importance of artistry or artifice, but to state the stark truth that no matter how good or, indeed, how bad the work we’re engaging with is, much of our experience will come from the specifics of our encounter. An audience may be much more willing to put up with a ham-handed script full of plot-holes having been dosed heavily with morphine: Or, conversely, they may have found a novel that otherwise would have been quite a pleasant read to be unbearable for the simple fact that they are being devoured by ants at the time. Most examples are less extreme, but the principle holds.

Now, this influence is pretty obvious: Everyone knows that their mood and the circumstances under which they partake of arts or entertainment will affect their enjoyment. The point is, though, that those of us who have undertaken to evaluate works with a critical eye, to dissect what makes a given piece work or fail to work, are faced with this in a very direct way. After all, if we’re so much at the whim of our moods and our circumstances, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to account for that when we seek to analyze a work?

But the more you try to account for the context of an experience the worse it gets. You become distracted by trying to tell whether that thing you liked was a property of the game you’re playing now or your general good mood, and your attempt to account for the biases formed by the experience end up biasing the experience even more. Or, perhaps, you try to plan your encounters with a particular work for a time when you’re likely to engage with it well – completely negating for yourself the joys of surprise, of discovery, or perhaps even making it so you never actually discover the right circumstances to play the game, to see the movie, to read the novel.

I guess this is a hobbyist disease’s. I guess if someone’s paying you to formulate an opinion then you damn well bite that bullet, play or see or read, and write whatever comes into your head, confident that if they didn’t like it they wouldn’t be paying you to write it. Capitalism often simplifies things that way: One of its more commendable traits.

Nevertheless, since no one’s forcing me, I often find myself putting off doing things that I am reasonably confident I would enjoy more or less indefinitely. I am awash in games and movies which I have never watched, a situation particularly embarrassing given my current situation of more-or-less abject poverty.

I do believe that it’s time to come up with a plan of battle. I believe that it is time to throw the chips in the air and let them fall where they may, damn the janitors, full speed ahead, etcetera. I believe it is time to construct a method of engaging with art that does not require me to decide each day what I will encounter, because I simply cannot be trusted with that responsibility. I think too much and it never happens.

Let’s see what I’ve got lying around.

SOLSometimes it’s hard…

Phil Fish quit the game industry this week. He was an abrasive and outspoken personality, a polarizing figure and, as he was known as such, was hounded incessantly by vicious internet wits via Twitter and forums until he’d had enough and decided he wanted out. The same crowd that wants strong personalities driving game design will turn on those personalities the moment they come to harbor a dissenting viewpoint.

I’m working so hard to make a game that is personally meaningful to me: If I do, will it be to achieve a constant cycle of harassment by a digital paparazzi who have come to believe that rudeness is critical insight and vulgarity is cleverness? In the end, my work is for me, but it’s hard not to be discouraged, hard not to be saddened, as over and over I see game designers whose worst conceivable crime is tactlessness be swarmed by self-righteous vultures.

Sometimes it’s hard…

Three weeks ago a man named Ryan Davis passed away at the tragically young age of 34. Ryan Davis was an active and cherished member of the game journalism community. No one, seemingly, anywhere, had a single unkind word to say about this man. It was agreed that video games journalism had lost one of its clearest, most charismatic, and most beloved voices.

I wasn’t really familiar with his work, but this death affected me. The grim and scared thought that a man just 4 years older than myself had passed so suddenly sat heavy alongside the hopeful and touching thought that he was remembered so well by so many, and together cast a light by which I saw my own life, still struggling, still far from the place of recognition I would wish for – still far from sharing my work with the world, that they might be touched both with my presence now and, at some point in the unspecified future, its lack.

And yet, outside of my little world of games and critics and jokes, the world just didn’t seem to notice at all that a wonderful man had left it behind.

Sometimes it’s so hard to remember why I want to be who I am, why I want to care about what I care about. The internet, a world of vast and unbound freedom that has been burgeoning for most of my life, is now slowly being undermined by conjoined government-corporate interests. Those who have the most to lose have been convinced that giving up safety and freedom is the only way to be safe and free. We rededicate ourselves to the eradication of fictional crime even as we ignore the causes of and effects of genuine crime. We are so afraid that the sky is falling that we never notice the ground shifting beneath our feet.

So, yeah, it’s hard, and I’m tired. I’ll carry on with existing and with being a person until someday it will be easier. But, in the meanwhile, please don’t mind if I take a moment to rest, and to maybe just point out: It never had to be this hard.

We did it to ourselves.

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

verbose

I like the in-between things. I like how we have names for the different ways things can be, but there’s always an infinite, if infinitely precise, difference between those states, and a tremendous spectrum spans that in-between space.

Maybe it’s because I keep ending up living in that space. I am an extremely stationary nomad.

Most people are not comfortable with the in-between.

There is a process which seems to occur. First, a thing exists, or comes into existence. This thing arrives naked, with no name, so sometimes it takes a while for people to realize that it is a thing. So, they make a name for it, they try to describe a box around what it is and what it isn’t with a label.

This is useful. People have a word to call this thing which they were aware of but had no way to talk about, and people who weren’t aware of said thing can hear its word and from that discover what the thing is. This is the birth of a word, the beginning of language.

Words change as people use them, but they also resist change by the same mechanism– a word that changes too readily is near useless because it can mean anything at any time. However, a word that never changes carries a risk: As the thing it was invented to describe expands and shifts, it may one day be too small to carry the range of meaning it was invented to span. It may, even, miss the mark completely, and describe something which has long since disappeared and no longer exists.

But this is all speaking in generalities. Let’s look at specifics, shall we?

“It’s not really a video game, just a movie with some interactive bits”

“She’s not a real gamer, she just plays social games”

“Look out man, that’s not a real chick, just a dude in a dress”

Pictured: True Scotsman

Pictured: True Scotsman

Our words are failing us terribly quickly.

People are not comfortable with the in-between.

This causes a number of different problems, but what makes saddens me is how artificial most of the problems we have are. People get angry at art because it doesn’t meet the requirements they have for the term ‘game’ or the term ‘first-person-shooter’ as though simply fitting that criteria were innately desirable. As well, inversely, they get angry at games because they don’t fit their definition of ‘art’, and never mind that it is the ways in which these things exceed our understanding that makes them really amazing.

We get angry at each other, too, as we see our comrades exceed the bounds of gender and genre we set on our fellows. We accuse these things and people of not being ‘real’ because they exceed our understanding of what those names can describe.

How cruel, to find the words we use to describe each other more important than each other.

Of course, that’s only one perspective, the perspective of language. I find this perspective comforting and understandable, as language is basically where I live, but to everyone else these similar structures may be couched in some other understanding, some other descriptive structure which comes to supersede that which it describes.

Tradition.

Family.

Nation.

But still, why is it we seem to believe these institutions are more intrinsically valuable than those humans which make it possible for them to exist?

We are convinced we must fit square pegs into round holes, and we inconveniently keep forgetting that we’re the ones who made those holes in the first place and it is quite feasible for us to remake them, and maybe make them square this time. Or, better yet, create something with more than one kind of hole, since it may well be that the round pegs fear that there will be no place for them in this new square-holed world.

But we are afraid.

This has a cost both in terms of human happiness and our capacity to innovate– not to imply that those things aren’t intimately tied together in the first place. The spaces in between the definitions that come quickly to mind are where we can find new ideas. New ideas have, by definition, no language available to describe them. Find a new word with a new meaning and you have a new concept.

CannedLightbulbs

New ideas, fresh from the idea store

I suppose it’s not interesting to observe that people fear new things. I suppose it’s well understood that this is the case. What is interesting, though, and mentioned less often, is the way people fight novelty by sectioning things off with language.

“It’s interesting, but is it ART?”

Language drives ideas drive language drives ideas. Insistent and exclusionary terminology is a way to enforce a status-quo.

As always, I am not angry as much as I am disappointed. I understand that it is frightening to try to construct a new world, a bigger one than the one we had before, and it’s never going to be easy. It is always hard to believe, as an artist, that if we have made something once that we can make it again.

The magic was in you all along.

Change begins where language ends. Change begins when we begin to perceive the edge of our ability to describe our world. As long as we clutch our vocabulary to our little hearts and prescribe proper usage and get angry and feel betrayed whenever something exceeds the language we use to describe it, we will never be able to conceive of a world better than this one, much less realize it.

I will grant, I am sometimes pedantic in my usage of language, I am sometimes prescriptive. I will correct people. I do think it’s important to know the rules before you break them. But it’s also important to realize that some rules do need to be broken, and to respect that not everyone may be as diligent as I am in regard to learning those rules before breaking them.

If no rules are ever broken, we will never exceed the language we use to describe ourselves.

People are trying to express something to each other, and sometimes that expression exceeds our pathetic dictionaries. Try to hear the words which don’t exist lying under the words that do, try to perceive the description of future ideas unsaid. It may sound like gibberish, it may BE gibberish, but under it there’s an idea.

Maybe not a good one, but a new one.

Shall we name it?