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New posts are being rescheduled to 10am Mondays. I’ve been slowly hemorrhaging readers over the last couple of years, and I never had that many to start with. I think there are a few possible explanations for this:

  1. Maybe my work is getting worse. I don’t think is the case but there’s not really any way to rule it out.
  2. Maybe my newer posts don’t have the same readership appeal. Earlier posts were mostly about specific game design issues and new ways to approach problems: Newer posts are much more about how we generally interact with art and its impact on us as human beings. I think these are both interesting, but one is a harder sell to new readers, stymieing the word-of-mouth that has bolstered previous posts
  3. Maybe Saturday at noon is a bad time to post. It made sense to me at first, since those are peak leisure hours so people would have lots of free time for reading. On further reflection, I don’t think many people are interested in thought-provoking mini-essays during peak leisure hours – they want to spend that time pursuing their own interests. I think many more people are interested in this sort of article-reading when they’re on break or procrastinating at work. The numbers on when new posts are successful seem to bear this out.

So yes. Mondays at 10am PST. I’m also going to be blocking more writing time into my schedule, which may result in longer pieces, though we’ll see how that shakes out in practice.

In any case, I don’t say this enough but this seems like a prime opportunity: If you read my work, thank you. Even while I put only a few hours per week of dedicated work time into this blog, it’s one of the rocks I anchor myself to in my life. I only hope that, in return for the attention, I can provide some sort of insight to those of you who choose to visit Problem Machine.

a_small_cup_of_coffee

Right around the time I was writing last week’s post I felt a suspicious itch in my nose that meant I was maybe getting sick. Then I got sick. I was pleased at how accurate my nasal observations had been, but overall I would have been fine with being wrong.

We can skip over the next few days. They were mostly very tedious and tiring. Afterwards, though, there were a couple of days where my sense of smell was recovered and I could think properly, but my sinuses were still packed with residual mucus, so 80% of what I smelled at each moment was the rancid remnants of the cold. Things which were once delicious stopped tasting good: Coffee became flavorless and bitter, and when I ate grilled vegetables I could only taste the grill. This was interesting, because other than that I felt fine. If I hadn’t recently been sick and didn’t understand this to be an effect of that cause, I would just think this was what these things tasted like. If my head just always smelled of disease, everything except for the simplest sweetest foods would seem unappealing.

It’s always so strange when the physical world affects the things we think of as being entirely psychological and intrinsic to our identity. We argue about matters of taste, justify why the things we like are good and the things we dislike are bad, without even considering whether we’re discussing the same thing, without accounting for how the tastes we cherish are shaped by our personal topography.

Games, and particularly computer games, externalize this issue. Every player’s experience of the game is mediated through their own gaming setup, so a transcendental experience for one player can be a framey mess for one who has different video card drivers. Then, another layer down, a fun-filled romp for one player may be a humiliating frustration for a player coping with disability. And now, as I reflect on it, another layer down, a game that tells a story of great import and meaning to one player may just be retelling the same boring demeaning claptrap another player has had to wade through for their entire life. If you go down enough layers, these external factors stop being external, start being part of who we fundamentally are, the shape of our skull, the networks of our neurons, the smell of our snot. It becomes impossible to separate the things which color our experience from the experience itself.

When I see so many people who seem to care nothing for art, who seem to care nothing for anything at all, who seem to exist only to take and accumulate and crave, I have to wonder how they are calibrated. Can they see at all what I see, feel at all what I feel? Maybe what makes them so hungry is they never learned to taste the things that they really needed to survive, so they just consume, like I kept drinking coffee that tasted like ashes, in the hopes that later it might help me to wake up.

paintedworldbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Thanks Laurie Anderson

cornucopia

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lex_luthor_president

President Trump.

President Donald fucking Trump.

The last few days have been strange. There was a kind of trick we played on each other as kids, where we’d hold one fist on the other person’s head, hit it lightly with the other hand, and trickle our fingers down across their hair, telling them we just broke an egg on their head. If you had the right touch, it could be an effective illusion. And that’s kind of what it felt like – a shock, too light to hurt exactly but unignorable, followed by a creeping feeling as the egg that wasn’t there slid down the scalp, the neck, slimy.

That slimy creepy feeling is still there, placed in honor of a slimy creep. Every day when I wake up I have to remind myself of the way my country has chosen to self-mutilate. President-elect Donald; Donny P; King Trumplefuckle, first of his name. That feeling has mostly subsided now, the numbness as mostly faded.

What’s left is rage.

Anger’s not that interesting to talk about, but god damn I feel it. It twists my guts up. And I’m trying now to figure out how to let it stray far enough away that I can think straight while still keeping it on a leash to make sure I never lose it. We’re going to need anger and outrage. Anger at injustice is the lattice that holds hope together, that affects change, that can protect and sustain us through what is likely to be one of the most dangerous eras in American history.

There’s a part of me that wants blood and violence, that wants to scour the country with fire until the cancer of white supremacy is burned to ash. I won’t say that violence is categorically unjustifiable, especially in a confrontation against those who believe that lynchings are an acceptable tactic. However, these are the minority of the opposition. We won’t defeat them by crushing them. We will defeat them by discrediting them. This work was begun but never finished: We must make the concept of white supremacy as disgusting nation-wide as it always should have been. We must make the very idea of race entitling you to a better life, making you mentally or physically superior, as a sick fantasy, masturbated to in dim light briefly before the curtain of shame falls.

So, yeah, normally I like to talk about video games here. I will, again, soon. The world carries on, and art is still important – terrifyingly so. Our culture has gotten away from us, has founded itself in lazy reinforcements of stereotypes rather than new stories that teach new ways of being and seeing. We’ve chewed up and regurgitated tropes that have lasted for far too long, colonialism and racism and sexism dressed in new clothes so we could pretend that’s not what they were any more, so that we could do things the easy way, so we could just hide behind paying tribute to the classics, so that we could make art that just reinforced the same ancient and lazy thoughts that have motivated the worst violence of the past centuries.

That’s what I have to say to the artists. Do good, and do better, and try to ease pain and light a way to a better place. Also endeavor to spread diversity both through the work you do and the work you boost. It makes everything more varied and vital and interesting, and maybe if people will be a bit less cavalier with voting for xenophobia if their favorite musician or artist or whatever will be hurt by it. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

However. Good art isn’t enough to fix this, which is a huge disappointment since that’s the field I tend to be most interested in.

First and foremost, we need to talk about harm reduction. Protect and take care of yourself. Survival is protest. Once you’ve made yourself as safe and comfortable as you feel you need to, protect and care for your friends and family. And so forth, it echoes outwards, together creating the most safety we can for each other, to our friends, to their friends, to strangers on the street and on the bus. Solidarity. We must come closer together. We all have our differences, and someday will probably need to negotiate those, but now we have a lot more in common and a much bigger problem that needs solving. These communities may be needed if the police fail to function, which is quite possible when they’re compromised at the state level – especially since, even before that became a concern, they often failed to actually serve the communities they were assigned to.

I won’t say things are going to be okay, but we have the power to make things more okay than they would otherwise be.

After that, we need to do everything we can to keep the ground we have gained over the past century. Obstruct, obstruct, obstruct: Fortunately we’ve had a good example set for us over the past 8 years by the GOP. Don’t let them do a fucking thing. Bury them in yellow tape, make sure not a single change goes by uncontested for four years. Our lawmakers have to be told that this is what we want. It’s fine: Democrats have a proven track record of getting nothing done, so they should be up to the job.

If things are going to get anywhere near as bad as I think they will, there are going to be deaths. Actually, there already have been: Several suicides on the night of the election and day after. But the full damage remains to be seen. When it manifests, we must do everything we can to tell the story. We must draw the line from the human suffering effect to its root cause in policy and rhetoric. Avoid accusation, but make the conclusion obvious and unescapable: The voice of guilt must come from within.

America has made many mistakes, and Americans know it, even if they don’t like to say so. Much of what went wrong with this election was a lack of a narrative, but this provides us with a powerful narrative for the next election: Redemption. “Everything has gone wrong, everything is fucked up, but it’s not too late: Together we can fix this”. It’s a powerful message, but for it to be effective we need to have a wide consensus that things are fucked. Obviously, with Trump in charge they will be, but that’s not the same as getting everyone to agree that they are – if we’re not careful, the Trump Empire will become the new normal. That’s why the story of the human suffering created must be told, told again, retold, until it becomes widely understood that things are broken.

Of course, selling the brokenness is only half the battle. We will also need a plan to put things back together. We’ve needed such a plan for a very long time. The lack of such a plan lost this election. Perhaps something like basic income will be the only effective strategy to combat the extinction of manufacturing and mining jobs: I don’t know. In two years we must be ready with a plan and candidates who are behind that plan.

Perhaps most vitally, we must stop letting our opposite define the terms of the conflict. We let them define our defense of our human dignity as ‘political correctness’, and let them make it a virtue to flout that common decency. We let them pretend that the imaginary transgressions of our candidate were comparable to the many monstrous grotesqueries of their candidate. We let them call themselves patriots while they worked to undermine the constitution and everything this country has ever stood for. Maybe we’re getting smarter about these things, slowly, but we have let far too much slide. So I will say this: If we are ‘Social Justice Warriors’, then let this be the Social Justice War. I, for one, intend to win it.

froggy

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

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

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

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

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

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

wilson

I am not an outgoing person. This is a trait that represents a significant obstacle as an artist, and I’m just now beginning to see how much of my time and effort has gone towards denying these problems rather than mitigating them.

As long as I’ve been working, I’ve pursued the hermit model of effort – basically, this is the model where everyone leaves me the fuck alone, I do a good job, and everything works out. This actually worked okay when I was a paid employee, since my effectiveness could be easily measured by whether or not I accomplished the goals that were set out for me, but now that I’m self-employed? Now that I set my own goals, evaluate my own progress? It is no longer feasible.

It’s hard to hear that I’ve been doing things wrong, but every time I take a step back to think things through it’s a conclusion that is difficult to avoid.

Art is performance. It is playing a role and communicating through that role. It’s seeing your audience and touching them and being touched by them, though usually not physically for legal reasons. I have habitually avoided this and all other contact for a very long time. And, because I’ve avoided all performance and direct audience engagement, I’ve been able to convince myself that the technique of creating art is separable from the technique of presenting it to an audience in a way that it is essentially not.

The marketing is the product and the product is the marketing, to put it in the most disgusting way possible. The reason why I put it this way is to demonstrate that even sometimes very important ideas can become overgrown and diseased by the instruments of capitalistic selection, and like a swollen body part begin to seem separate from what they belong to. The moment marketing became a separate word, it became desirable for artists to separate their art from it, even though it’s just a particularly crass aspect of the hunger for an audience that unites all artists.

I’ve been watching indie games for a while, even if I haven’t been participating as much as I should have. I’ve seen who gets to be successful, and it seems most often to be the person who makes a good enough game in the right place at the right time. This isn’t the same thing as saying success is luck. Being part of a community shows you where the places and times are, tells you what time to be there and what wine to bring. Being open about your work, sharing your process and opening up your hopes to your peers and to your audience is the aspect of art that has metastasized to become marketing.

I find myself, now, standing apart from most of the things that I know contribute to success. I work reasonably hard reasonably regularly, but I rarely tell anyone what I’m doing beyond the most cursory of details. I don’t participate in development communities, don’t ask for help or try to help others, don’t collaborate on projects, don’t share my own progress. I’ve built a dam to try to hold everything in because I’m so scared of losing parts of myself, and that means that everything I give is out of my own personal reservoir – I can’t get excited by the excitement of others, I can’t learn from the learning of others, and I have no way of knowing, ever, whether anything I do is interesting or worthwhile to anyone but myself.

Over the last few months I’ve had several basil plants die on me because I was overwatering them, once a day, because that was simplest, that required me to pay the least attention, that was an obvious rule I could follow. I can’t help but feel like there was a lesson for me, there, and I can’t help but feel that everything I’ve done in the name of my own personal project, all the side-work I’ve avoided and all of the aspects of life I’ve avoided due to what I considered dedication have not actually been to the project’s best benefit.

What happens next is not easy or simple. What happens next is a world of possibilities, another reason I’ve been avoiding it. What happens next is I try to find a place to be, people to connect with, peers to teach and learn from. I don’t know where I’ll start and I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it will be its own process and, like any other skill I’ve taught myself, will be a long and painful road, one where I must find and face my own inadequacies over and over to proceed – but, in this case, my failures will be public, rather than private as I have always sought to make them.

This will not easy for me, possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, someday it will be the second hardest, then the third, until one day I forget it as I have forgotten my first steps, as I grow and learn. Or so I can hope.