Archive

Personal

A few nights ago I was wedged between my bed and the shelves I was trying to cram into my closet. I was soaked in sweat, and resting my head against the flimsy particle board backing of the shelves, which was becoming increasingly flimsy the more I tried to push them into place against the evidenced will of the laws of space and physics. Everything I owned was piled up around the room, and for each new other angle I tried to fit the shelves into the closet I had to move everything around again, each thing blocking where the next thing needed to go, or getting caught on every other thing, or tipping over and scattering things everywhere. So many things. Each action had prerequisite actions, every object a series of locations it had to be shuffled to before it could go where it was supposed to, and at the end, when I was forced to give up, the stacks of possessions piled up behind that stoppage like a train jam, and I felt despair out of any proportion to the problem of fitting a set of crappy Ikea shelves in a closet.

Of course, while the shelf situation was frustrating, it wasn’t the source of despair. The despair that was waiting to raise to the surface was over the chain of prerequisites, the stack of laundry that had to go on the bed so I could open the closet, the boxes that had to go on my computer chair so I could remove the old shelf, the whole room becoming chaotic and unusable just to clear a path, and the path in the end being useless – but then the car I needed to borrow as well, the money I needed to spend as well, the time I needed to make, the projects I needed to plan, as well, as well, as well.

When we speak of the belief that all things are connected, we speak of it as though it ought to make things easier somehow. As though there’s a difference between a web and a tangle when either one can make you drown.

A belief in a the vast interconnectedness of all things is not a cure for anxiety.

It feels like Sokoban, a game of pushing boxes into place, where each box requires pushing other boxes requires pushing other boxes before anything can go where it actually needs to go. It should seem repellent in this aftermath, but Sokoban seems so appealing to me as a game right now because it would be nice to know what the actual boxes are, where the bounds of the arena where they can be moved lie, and to be certain that the posed problem can in fact be solved. Games promise self-contained problems, problems that don’t connect to anything outside of themselves and that you can therefore give yourself wholly to solving without constantly worrying about whether you have to do something else outside of them first. They promise not to be approachable – not necessarily easy, but quantifiably difficult. They promise to have a beginning and an end, to have boundaries instead of the constant hell of shifting walls that the vast sloppy systems of the outside world offers.

They did, anyway. Now games are a service, with boundaries that shift, with ‘new’ services on offer that may in fact just be keyed doors in front of the parts of the game you originally wanted to play. We have gleefully broken down the boundaries of the game that offered such comfort in the naive belief that to have no boundaries is to be free and that to be free is to be unbound. These games are just a symptom of a deeper rot of disruption, naturally. Why have boundaries between work and leisure when you can do both at once? Why have boundaries between work and entertainment when you can do both at once? Why not just have a little bit of work happening all the time, every day, forever? Be a bit more productive whenever you’re idle so you can feel good about yourself? How else could you possibly feel good about yourself?

And before you know it, everything in your life is just a box needing to be shoved into place so everything else can fit. Your chair and bed are boxes to be moved into place. Your friends and family are boxes to be moved into place. It’s all Sokoban now, and what is vitally important is that everything be moved into place, and it’s all interconnected, a puzzle of unverifiable size and complexity and of inescapable urgency.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

Advertisements

Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.

It’s been a little while since I posted. Once habits are broken they can be difficult to mend, but since circumstances always eventually substantiate to break them, learning how to reestablish a good habit becomes a necessary skill. Creativity isn’t like an engine that you can just start up again whenever it stops, though: It’s not really repeatable, because with each new created work the process mutates. The reasons why I wanted to write six years ago when I started this blog are not the reasons I want to write now, but as long as habit has stuck me to my course I haven’t had to worry about those reasons.

And now that the habit has been broken, I do have to worry about those reasons.

Why do I want to write? Partially it’s that thoughts once you’ve had them are like produce once you’ve bought it. You can put those thoughts away in the fridge for a while, but eventually if you don’t do anything with them they’ll go bad, take up space, and start stinking up the joint. Once in a while you have to clean those thoughts out. Writing is helpful that way. Partially, as well, it’s that this blog is one of the things I’ve achieved that I can be most uncomplicatedly proud of: I’ve never had a ton of readership, but a few people usually see the things I’ve written every week and if a few people out of those few people find interest or enjoyment from my work then I’m happy. I’ve worked at it for the better part of a decade now, creating work almost every week, and written what amounts to a few novels worth of words on many different topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed certain themes reemerging, a certain shape of an underlying work being silhouetted, and I recognize it as a self-portrait taking shape.

What I think I’m coming to recognize, though, is while each new piece here adds to that portrait, adds new details or expands it at the edges, makes the overall idea more expansive and complete, there’s a limit to working that way. Eventually there’s not going to be anything more to write of whatever this is that I’ve been working on. I hesitate to return to habit with too much enthusiasm because it may be, in the end, that whatever Problem Machine is has actually already been completed, and I’m just overworking the canvas now.

Well, obviously I don’t think that, or I wouldn’t have written the words you’re reading now. How will I know when it has been completed? I probably won’t. I think, eventually, I’m just going to try to take everything I’ve written and boil it down, to distill it – to take this big sloppy self-portrait and refine it, frame it, and hang it. Once I do that, what then? Do I stop writing, or change my style, or do something else? I don’t know, but whatever it is I’ll need some way to flush those stagnant thoughts out of my head, so I’ll probably make something like this again.

Nothing is ever complete. There’s always more to be written.

Habits are helpful. Habit is a place to nail down the flapping edges of your behavior, to train consistency in yourself. But as with all points of stability, every habit rests on something else, and those things can be shaken loose. A home, a person, a job, any one of these may seem rock-solid only to roll away, and that’s when habits tend to slip. I’ve been letting habits I’m really quite fond of slip mostly from being distracted, by projects, novelties, and significant life changes both good and bad. I haven’t been writing blog posts – I’m going to be trying to do better on that score, since I think it’s good for my brain to get those thoughts out there and these posts are also the most consistent creative work I’ve produced in my life.

But okay, what about last month’s monthly project? By which I mean the month before last’s monthly project, which then expanded to become a 2-month project? It has, I guess, now further expanded to become a ?-month project.

I should probably talk a bit about what the project is before talking about how it went/is going. I decided going in that it was going to be a 2d platformer, and that for the first time I was going to seek out collaborators instead of trying to go it alone. With input from other people interested in the project it shifted into a 2d stealth platformer with some environmental interaction – think of, perhaps, a cross between the N series of games and Spelunky. Many of these elements are still, ah, a little rough around the edges, but I think the idea still has a lot of merit.

It was and is going well, but I got kind of burned out working on it — part of the idea behind these one-month projects in the first place was that they would be projects I could work full-force on and then complete and put down right around the time my enthusiasm might start to wane. This is the first such project I’ve tried to work with other people on, and I wasn’t prepared either for how that would affect this dynamic or for how busy I would be during that time period. Everyone has their own way of working, and on a freeware-type project like this everyone has a dramatically different scope of time they can bring to bear on the work.

So, right now, I don’t see any reason to rush this project to completion. I’ll be taking the next month or two to work on other monthly projects, while picking away at the most urgent tasks on the platformer as they become necessary, and then revisit the project in a couple of months to try to wrap things up.

In the meanwhile, for this month’s project I’m going to work on creating a vector drawing tool for Unity. This is something I came up against while I was building the lighting system for the 2d platformer project: Unity has very few tools for vector drawing, and those that exist are either no longer supported or aren’t very good yet. I’d like to take this opportunity to try to create a tool for creating vector graphics based off of the Flash graphics class. I’m not sure how far I want to take that approach, how full-featured it will be or what other capabilities it will encompass, but I at least have Flash (and OpenFL, the open source Flash-inspired game dev tool) to refer to for ideas and inspiration. Next month I’ll probably return to EverEnding… sort of! I’m going to try to basically port all the work I’ve done on the project into Unity and see if I can effectively use that to streamline and improve the quality of the work. It’s mostly a feasibility study/experiment. Either way, hopefully having this vector tool available will help in that process as well!

It’s very frustrating, sometimes, being an artist who is both terrible at and temperamentally disinclined from all forms of self-promotion. There’s a yearning to make people look and listen paired with an absolute aversion to the actions that could actually make that happen. However, as much as that bothers me sometimes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what success would look like to me, and what would come with it, and I have to admit that some of the things that might accompany it are worrying to me – and perhaps not the sort of things one might expect.

I think the part that scares me, and this probably explains a lot about why I’m so bad at self-promotion, is that if people are actually listening to you then you need to be extremely careful about what you say. I don’t mean this in a “oh boy you can’t say anything without offending anybody these days” way. I mean it in the sense that, when people are listening to your words your words become, effectively, actions. If you have an audience of millions any little thing you say might, potentially, have life and death consequences. The fact is, I don’t think I could continue to write the way I write now and feel ethically okay with it: When maybe 20 people read my blog a day, I can throw my thoughts at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure that if I went back through my archives now I’d find many of my old posts naive or ignorant or completely idiotic – and, for me, that’s okay, because what I’m primarily interested in here on Problem Machine is just posing questions that interest me at the moment in a hopefully thought-provoking way. But if thousands of people were hanging on my word? Tens of thousands? Millions? I wouldn’t be able to do it. Any random thought could justify any unconnected action. I’d be pouring something into the ideological makeup of the world without having any idea of what effect it might have, dumping mysterious glowing goo into the water supply just to see what happens.

The point of which is to say that the ethics of art creation don’t necessarily scale. You can create a lot of art as a small creator with a small audience that you really can’t if and when that audience grows, and this constantly trips up small creators. In many ways, staying small is in your best interest if you care at all about creating ethically – just as the spider men say, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus if you feel unprepared to shoulder that responsibility without causing harm your best bet is to avoid great power.

And yet, we have so many incentives to become bigger. Not only are we told that success for an artist looks like having a big audience, it’s also, for most of us, a prerequisite for being able to survive while creating. If you can’t find a patron (or spouse) to support you while you work, you have to build a fan base large enough that you can float off of their contributions or page views – if you want to work full-time as an artist, anyway. This is why we keep seeing the pattern repeat itself of some small-time entertainer becoming hugely popular through Youtube or whatever and then saying something stupid and reckless which makes everyone mad at them: The kind of personality it takes to rise by force of personality from a small-time celebrity to a big-time celebrity is largely incompatible with the awareness it takes to actually be responsible with the power that reach confers.

The strip of available space to work in is narrow: The art you’re capable of making, the art you want to make, that art which is ethical to make, the art you are comfortable making, each of these shape the space of the art you can actually make – and the context of your place in the world changes the range of each of these. I don’t think it’s rare at all for this narrow strip of fertile ground to completely disappear as peoples lives change, as they run out of time or emotional space to express themselves. The time and context we have available to us to freely create is, over the course of our lives, potentially extremely limited.

No matter how much you might wish to, you will never know for sure your work is harmless. If it makes you feel any better, you’ll also never know that anything else you do is harmless. It’s all guesswork, of hope and leaps of faith that maybe we won’t do too much harm without meaning to. So, what, are we to sit in place and molder? Are we to always be paralyzed by a sea of choices with consequences with consequences with consequences?

But we do not essay forth into a void. There are already people creating, and many of them creating irresponsibly. Even having some awareness that you might have great power and, if so, it ought come with great responsibility puts you ahead of the game.

It’s better to go into it with eyes open. It’s better to worry about whether you’re relevant than to be loudly irrelevant, to worry about being unethical rather than being violently unethical. Even if it makes it harder to create, narrows the range of what we can create, it also opens up new possibilities and helps us better evaluate the real quality of our work. When you observe the world, you see a few people who are brilliant and many people who spout bullshit with unearned senses of self confidence. It’s easy to cast yourself as one or the other in your imagination, and to never end up saying anything out of fear of being unable to live up to the ideal of brilliance, or fear of unintentionally becoming another bullshit peddler. However, even as the world is full of vapid braying, the world is also full of people who never say anything because they’re not sure if what they have to offer is valuable, and the world is also full of people who try to be heard and cannot because the level of noise is too high, and all of them have so much more of value to offer than those buffoons who usually hog the spotlight, who are certain beyond question that it’s worth everyone’s while to listen to what they have to say.

The question is not whether you can be brilliant or a buffoon, but whether you can speak out at all. As long as you approach your words with care and thoughtfulness, they will always be worthwhile in a world where so many words are produced without thought, without care.

An ugly trait of our society is that we tend to see people’s value primarily in terms of the goods they might produce. We even tend to see ourselves this way, to want to maximize our productivity, to be able to demonstrate ourselves as worthy. As I’ve come to notice this ugliness more and more, though, this has raised a dilemma for me: I know that this worldview is shitty and exploitative and dehumanizing, but I also deeply value art and believe that it’s worth spending time to make it.

Everything that human society has produced it has done at the cost of some portion of a person’s life. People trade pieces of their lives with each other to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, whether directly by means of friendships and other relationships or by spending time on producing goods and services which they trade with each other. Money hypothetically facilitates this exchange, provides a layer of abstraction which makes it easier for large groups of people to exchange pieces of their life in ways which are valuable to each other. In the abstract that’s wonderful, but in practice this leads to Problems: It leads to stockpiling – people hoarding away money and goods, keeping away chips that each represent seconds and minutes and hours of another person’s life, and offering no benefit to anyone. It leads to exploitation, someone with relatively more resources taking labor from a person with relatively few in exchange for the abstracted, liquefied version. It becomes an end in and of itself, a method of power and class rather than of helping people exchange their time in beneficial ways.

A person’s time can be used to create things that are beneficial for others, and that’s beautiful. Unfortunately, rather than us giving ourselves, we are being taken. Rather than nursing, we are being milked. The entire apparatus of creativity becomes implicated in a monstrous crime.

There’s a temptation when faced with this evil to discard its fruits entirely. This is probably the proper approach on a greater structural level, but less so when it comes to specific objects – that is, yes, the exploitation needs to be stopped, but the goods themselves still represent slivers of a person’s life, and that should be treated with respect. The things we make are important. The things we make are still part of us, even if the method of their making is contemptible.

The old promise of automation was that it would save us by reducing how much of a person’s life they had to spend making each individual object. The bulk of the time could be offloaded to the machines, leaving the person to manage the work using a fraction of the time. In practice, of course, this resulted in people simply being let go, and made even more vulnerable to exploitation, driving the trade value of human time, of human life, down. Not down far enough, though: Companies started building factories where human time and life were even cheaper, and then automating those factories so each individual put into them could produce even more. The low price of these goods directly reflects the contempt in which we hold the people who actually produce them, though that contempt is negotiated through the corporations themselves so that we seldom have to acknowledge it directly. We are incentivized to create poverty and suffering so that human life is worth less in some places and we can make affordable trinkets. The old twist about a machine being powered by lost souls has come true, but it’s every machine, brought into existence by sacrificing a small but significant piece of another human being’s life.


Yesterday, at the time of this writing, was Thanksgiving, a holiday about gratitude – a sentiment I can largely get behind, at least in the abstract. When I was taught about Thanksgiving in schools, we learned the story of how the kind native Americans taught the Pilgrims to survive, and so this day became a day of feasting and gratitude. This was, again, an abstract gratitude, and in no way impeded the progress of the subsequent genocide. We mostly eat turkey on this holiday so have a tradition now of the president pardoning a turkey, which is a funny joke about not killing a bird except – was the turkey supposed to have committed a crime? Why are we pardoning a creature to excuse the crimes we intended to commit against it? Surely we should be begging the turkey’s pardon. It’s funny the way crimes and punishments tend to fuse together and cipher for one another.

Today, at the time of this writing, we have another holiday called Black Friday: A holiday about buying things, consuming those fragments of human life that have been shaved off into technological marvels. Mostly, when we talk about being thankful during Thanksgiving, the American version of gratitude is being thankful to be an American, thankful to be here and not in one of those countries where human life isn’t worth so much, and where they make the electronics we buy on Black Friday. Thus we can more efficiently reap the benefits of making other countries worse.

They’re an interesting pair of holidays: Having what you need, and then desperately wanting more.


As an artist, how can I produce in this context, without feeling that I am exploiting or being exploited? The first and, perhaps, most difficult lesson is learning what my creative resources actually are. What can I put into my art? Not just in terms of skill and talent, but in terms of how much time and energy I can capably invest into my work. We’ve been trained to think that eight hours of work makes a complete day of work, but that’s quite a lot. You might be able to put that much in, but maybe you can get more done by putting in 3 and then putting 3 into something else that needs to get done; or maybe by putting in an hour or two here and there; or by going on creative binges that last a few days but leave you exhausted once a month. I’m still trying to discover what my personal alchemy is. The goal is to find what I can produce readily and calibrate my work to that. Once I’ve done this, I can at least and at last know when I am working and when I am not working – I constantly felt like I was always half-working, not really putting my all in but not really able to relax. If you try to put more of yourself than you have to give into something, you start burning yourself, like burning books to stay warm or burning muscle to keep from starving, you’re consuming parts of yourself that weren’t meant to be used this way, and that will have consequences, sooner or later.

Finding a way forward is a matter of balance – of putting the time and energy I have in the places where they do the most good, of finding the art where it’s lying most ready to be found instead of wasting resources trying to hunt it down.

Allocating time that isn’t time for work and then not just spending it sitting around doing nothing is still hard, though, because I have no idea what I want to do with myself beyond make things. I feel isolated in a way that sometimes bothers me, feel a need to make new connections with people, but also simultaneously have a loathing of all the baggage of unfamiliar social situations and potential conflict that comes with meeting people. Even more than working on art, it can be difficult to cut off from spending extra time and energy on a social contact once you’ve already reached your capacity for putting in that sort of effort – and, unlike art, the damage caused by doing so clumsily can have deep ramifications.

Left to my own devices, I might spend forever happily tinkering with my own projects, existing in stasis – but the world keeps moving. Sooner or later, something I rely on is going to break, there’s going to be some sort of disaster that throws me off balance, and if I don’t expand outwards to discover a world beyond myself before that point it’s just going to be that much worse. I feel myself becoming isolated by degrees, and I’m reminded of Edmund McMillen’s game Aether. Aether is a short game where you play a child flying around space on an octopus-like monster. As you visit different planets, there are creatures there with simple problems which you can solve, and as you do the planet blooms. However, each time you do, when you come back to Earth it’s slightly smaller. The game ends after you solve every planet’s problems and come back, and the Earth is smaller than you are, and crumbles when you touch it. It’s a metaphor for getting lost in creativity that I keep coming back to, because I do feel like my connection to the world is very tenuous in some ways, anchored by just a few people and places.

I’m reaching out and trying to touch these two ideas at the same time, of creating things of worth and beauty and of building connections to new people and places. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m at least getting better at making things without completely losing myself to that process. Perhaps once I get really good at that it will make it easier for me to expand outwards. The challenge then will be learning to want to.


We’re all burning our resources and trying to do it the best way we can, to make the best life we can for however long it lasts. If we must burn up, let us at least warm each other in the process. It’s up to you to find out the way you burn brightest, and longest, and kindest.

Today I was buying groceries along with my mom – she has a working car and I do not. After leaving her for a bit to find something I missed in the last aisle, I started heading back to where I last saw her when a woman of about the same height, build, and coloration wearing similar clothes turned the corner, and before noticing the difference (I am a bit nearsighted) I said “I found it!”

The woman was confused. I was mildly embarrassed, but just kept on walking like I hadn’t done anything unusual. Maybe she eventually convinced herself I was talking into a bluetooth headset or something. That part’s not important. I started thinking, though, about how our narrative of a situation shapes our perceptions. This woman would ordinarily not have been noteworthy to me, and I don’t think I would usually make the mistake I did – the resemblance was really not that strong – except for it would have made all the sense in the world for it to have been my mom turning that corner. I had no reason to question it. It’s such an echo of childhood, of getting lost in a store and finding the Wrong Mom just because a woman nearby happened to be approximately the correct shape and color.

Preconceptions shape everything we see before we ever see it – not only how we interpret the things we see, but whether we actually notice certain things at all. Those things which fit our expectations we never question until the point where they no longer line up – that is, either our understanding changes or they change to no longer fit our expectations. The mystery woman is deputized mom until further notice, usually approximately the time she turns around to notice a strange child clinging to her.

This whole thing reminded me, as really far too many things do, of the experience of playing Spy in Team Fortress 2. As the spy, if the enemy team ever suspects what you are they can usually kill you quite easily. Much of success as the spy, then, is in never being suspected. It requires knowing what people expect to see at any given moment, and being that for just long enough to achieve whatever mischief you can. I like to say that if they even have the chance to wonder if you might be a spy, you’ve already failed. It’s not a matter of blending in to your surroundings, it’s a matter of blending into your opponent’s ongoing narrative about their surroundings. Or, anyway, that’s what it is ideally, under optimal circumstances. Pragmatically it’s just as often about waltzing in when there’s too much bullshit going on for anyone to pay attention.

We have two blind spots. One, we cannot see anything that fails to fit into our world-view. Two, we can never question anything that fits too perfectly into our world-view. Both of these are indescribable anomalies to us until we make adjustments in our understanding to accommodate them. There are things we don’t see because they’re not what we expect: There are things we never question because they’re exactly what we expect.

So you have to wonder: How much of the big picture am I not seeing? How much of the world around me is invisible because it exceeds my expectation, cannot be heard because it’s outside of the audible spectrum? How much of it is unquestioned just because we’re used to it, sunk into our lungs like oxygen? This question seems more and more relevant, as the injustices that founded our history accrue interest.

To us artists, it presents a conundrum. All of our art, to the audience, is seen in the context of all the art they’ve seen before. If we depart too much from the vocabulary of that art, our creation starts to seem like gibberish: No matter what clarity of thought we put into it, they simply do not have the tools to interpret it – no, not even the tools necessary to want to interpret it. At the same time, if we hew too closely to that vocabulary, we lose the words to say anything for ourselves, anything different than what has already been said. We doom ourselves to become propagandists.

It’s a tricky needle to thread. The better part of art is learning how to be seen – and, as someone so habitually drawn to invisibility, someone who always preferred to play Spy in Team Fortress 2, that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.