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Since 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the ethics of art, the responsibilities of putting work out into the world. This may be jumping the gun, since very little of my work garners much attention, but, well, on the off chance that that ever changes I would like to have my principles figured out beforehand.

What art is ethical to create? Many will immediately respond that any and all art is, but that’s more of a kneejerk than a considered response. If we accept the premise that art has power to do good, we also implicitly accept the premise that it has the power to do harm. Knowingly doing more harm than good is pretty much unethical by definition, so that’s at least a stable reference point: Don’t make art that you know will do more harm than good.

Unfortunately that describes next to nothing. Art is, in general, something that is extraordinarily tricky to know the consequences of. A motivated mind can readily misinterpret the most overt of allegories to support their own worldview, so the effect a piece has on the world tends to have as much to do with the particular circumstances of the audience it finds as it does with the content of the work itself. Again many will take this as carte blanche to create whatever work they want without worrying at all about the consequences, and again that’s not a considered response. Just because you cannot know what the consequences of an act are doesn’t absolve you of the responsibilities of trying to account for them.

But what does this ethical responsibility look like? In some ways it looks a lot like what we expect of craftsmanship in general. It looks like avoiding simple and misleading answers to important questions, it looks like flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, it looks like a world that operates in a way that makes sense based on the forces at work within that world. This might not sound like it has anything to do with ethics, but there is an obligation to present a version of the world that doesn’t mislead the audience about how the world works. It doesn’t mean there can’t be fantastical elements, but those elements have to exist within a system that accounts for their presence. It doesn’t mean that good can’t triumph, but it does mean that that victory has to be achieved through some heroic process, not emerge by default, inevitably, just because we have to have a happy ending.

What it doesn’t look like is most of the popular art we make. It doesn’t look like worlds where the only solution to the problems presented is violence, and that violence is always presumed justified. It doesn’t look like cartoons where the good guys always win because they’re the good guys, and it doesn’t look like novels where women have to suffer to be strong, and it doesn’t look like games where you shoot a thousand people in the face and are still considered a hero. These are all conventions we’ve gotten used to because they’re convenient and make creating the rest of the story easier, but we’re starting to see the sort of world that this art creates. It’s hard to be okay with that.

Art is mysterious, though. The way it affects us is unpredictable, and by that token the idea of a work capable of doing great good or great harm is compelling. Someday, will someone find the right words to stop poverty, war, and homelessness? Someday, will someone create the perfect propaganda to guide us all into unending cruelty and fascism?

I think it’s wise that we consider the impact of our work, before we create something we cannot uncreate.

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We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.

We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.

These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.

I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.

At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.

How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.

Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how insufficient the idea of all stories being rooted in conflict is – actually, I mostly wrote about how our assumption that conflict is the core of stories affects the way we design games, but most readers seemed more interested in whether stories inherently need to be about conflict. While I never claimed the conflict model of storytelling was worthless, I raised questions about why it was assumed that conflict was regarded as inherently and uniquely necessary to create and tell a story. Discussing and thinking about this afterwards, I think we tend to focus on conflict because it’s the most readily available way to create tension, which is, perhaps, a necessary component of storytelling – or, at least, we can define tension in such a way that that’s a defensible assertion. And, reading this, you might say “okay, conflict, tension, same thing right? A rose by any other name yada yada yada,” and for many kinds of tension that’s basically true. In many cases, even if we split hairs about conflict and tension and which arises from the other and which is a better word for the thing we’re describing, it’s entirely a semantic argument. The reasons why I choose to say ‘tension’, though, are twofold: First, because ‘conflict’, though it can broadly describe any two forces in a story that work against each other, tends to push us towards the idea of interpersonal conflict – so the choice of words matters here. Tension is an inherently vaguer term with less power to dictate the form the action of the story takes. Second, because there are forms of tension that simply cannot be readily described as conflict – foremost among these are what I’m going to call external tensions.

As I see it, every story has internal and external tension. Internal tensions are the places where the forces in the story aren’t aligned and push against each other in some way – sure, there’s good versus evil, but there’s also Denise trying to make an early appointment versus traffic and daylight savings, or Gordon trying to clean his apartment vs his apartment being extraordinarily gross and also he’s still kind of hung over. These map fairly readily, albeit in a somewhat tortuous way, to the idea of conflict – whether “man vs man”, “man vs nature”, or “man vs self”, these have been described as conflict. I would argue that that’s not a very good or intuitive description, but I wouldn’t bother writing about it if that was my only critique of the model.

External tensions, on the other hand, are those places where the story and the reader’s understanding of the world we live in do not agree with each other. It’s why portrayals of flawless beauty or a utopian world are almost painful to experience, because they scrape up against our understanding of the limits and expiration of beauty and our knowledge of the deep and ugly flaws of our world. External tension is how a story can be compelling with nothing approaching what we would call conflict, simply by pushing against our expectations or beliefs in some way. When we look at it this way, stories begin to look like physics energy diagrams, where tension is never really resolved, just converted. Happy endings don’t erase the internal tension of the story’s conflicts, just convert that tension into an external tension against our knowledge of how much rarer and more complicated happy endings are in our world – that they are seldom uncomplicatedly happy, and never really endings.

However, because external tension is contextual, its nature depends on the reader. If the values of the story and its understanding of the world line up fairly closely with your own, you won’t experience much external tension, and if they don’t then you will. Unlike internal tension, external tension produces an implicit demand on the audience to consider why they feel this way and whether to change their understanding of the world, or their understanding of the story, to resolve this tension. This is why stories can be powerful agents of change, because of this implicit demand for action. However, the author can’t know exactly where this tension will fall or how it will be perceived, so attempting to change minds this way can be a risky business – A tension against fascistic elements in a story can frequently be resolved just as easily by embracing as by opposing fascism, and the same story may lead different people to either or neither.

In all likelihood, this is still a flawed way of viewing a story, flawed in ways I haven’t yet noticed, but it still seems at least more encompassing and accurate than declaring that a story is based on its conflicts. It’s a lens, a way of viewing a story: What here generates internal tension? What here generates external tension? And these start to map pretty closely to genres: Drama and suspense and action stories are built on internal tension, on the conflicts between the characters and their aspirations and the world. Satire, science-fiction, and comedy rely more on the external tensions, absurdity and surprise and commentary on real things and events.

The conflict model is valid inasmuch as it’s a smaller version of this model, which encompasses more story possibilities. It’s highly likely that this, too, is a small part of a greater whole, that this still shuts out a great number of possible stories, stories without tension. I don’t know what those look like, yet.

Games are, generally, engines for responding to player input. Whether the game feels good is largely a matter of how robust the response is – robust both in how closely it interacts with the player’s input and in how well-constructed it is. A systems-driven game would be primarily the former, capable of reacting to a wide range of different situations in ways which are individually rather shallow but, in interaction with each other, can be rich and complex. Linear narrative games, on the other hand, focus on the latter, only responding to a narrow range of inputs but responding with content that has had a great deal of thought put into it.

Let’s disregard linear narrative games for the moment, because what I’m interested in right now is that idea of responsiveness. Every time you, the player, takes an action within the game and the game responds to it, that just inherently feels pleasurable, the pleasure of a toddler dialing a fake phone or ringing the bell on a bike. Doing something, and something happening in response, is an intrinsically pleasing act.

Now, games try to be ambitious in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the most popular is having some sort of morality system: Do Good things and good things happen, do Bad things and bad things happen. There are a whole lot of conceptual problems with this, some of which I’ve gotten into before, but a huge fundamental flaw with these systems as a form of messaging is that there’s no way bad things can happen in a game – that is to say, there’s no way that a game’s reaction to your decisions can really be ‘bad’ because the mere fact that it is responding to your decision is pleasing to the mind on a fundamental level. When you’re playing Deus Ex, you don’t get flustered or upset because JC Denton got in trouble with his boss for poking around in the women’s restroom, you’re just pleased the game noticed something you did. You can’t even really punish the player by making things more difficult to them, because at that point you’ve given them a challenge run – this is fairly directly critiqued in the genocide story path in UNDERTALE (I’ll avoid getting into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but you can read my thoughts on it, among other aspects of the story, here).

It seems that the best way to discourage a player from taking an action is merely to fail to respond to it at all, rather than punish them or shame them for it: After all, many people find punishment and shame quite enjoyable under safe circumstances. Perhaps this tendency, rather than actual narrative success, is what has preserved the morality system in games – but I digress. In Far Cry 2, there are various animals wandering the deserts and forests you’re exploring and fighting through. The developers didn’t want the players to hurt or abuse animals for fun, so they just made them so they dropped dead if anything happened to them. This lead to some amusing scenarios where a deer would occasionally get bumped with an open car door and immediately be stricken dead, but at least served the purpose of keeping the animals from being cheap physics toys for the players to amuse themselves with.

None of this is an argument to disinclude consequence or morality from your game: After all, we include these ideas in other narrative forms all the time, just with no expectation of the audience to feel personal shame or chagrin for the actions undertaken. I would relinquish any idea of making the player ever regret taking an action in a video game on the basis of that action’s consequences: There can be no such thing as punishing a player with the consequences for their actions when consequences are just so delightful, regardless of their intent.

They say there’s no story without conflict. I don’t really understand why this is said so often and with such confidence, but that seems to be how we teach fiction-writing around these parts because I’ve heard it a lot. I dislike broad structural declarations like this, since inevitably stories are warped to fit the lens rather than the lens being applied to better understand the story: If there’s no interpersonal conflict, then the conflict must be between a person and their environment or their own mind… this covers a pretty broad range. Yes, you can describe a plot this way: Nearly any sequence of thoughts or events could be vaguely described as a conflict, in the same way nearly any arrangement of objects could be turned into a physics diagram, but only occasionally would these be useful intermediary steps towards solving a particular problem. Likewise, only occasionally is the conflict-centered view of storytelling the most useful and interesting approach.

There are lots of stories! Stories of love and loss, of the unreliability of memory and the temptations of imagination and of hurt and exploration. It’s impoverished to regard these as a conflict between Man and Time or Man and Death. What sort of conflict is that? We are not in conflict with gravity or with the ground, we are suspended between them. Even if we fall, our death is not conflict with the ground. Things happen that don’t fit this conflict model, and they frequently make interesting stories anyway. It’s a bit terrifying that we’ve been able to tell the line that stories are based in conflict as a generally uncontested bit of storytelling advice for so long – that, itself, tells a story: It’s like science fiction, a culture that can only understand the world through fights.

Similarly, a popular description of gameplay, coined by Sid Meier, is as a ‘series of interesting choices’. This is broader and, in general, I have less direct criticism of it – my issue is more with what we regard to be ‘interesting’ and what we regard to be ‘choices’. Even in completely passive entertainment along the lines of movies we make choices – we choose which characters we like, we choose what to focus our attention on and choose from different possible interpretations of what’s going on and why. Even in a passive medium we are active audience members, parsing and digesting and translating. This process is much the same as it is in games, except games then ask us to take that interpretation one step further, to translate it into an action that then affects the state of the game.

Since we have culturally interpreted all fiction as being based in conflict, it’s then a short jump to interpret all ‘interesting choices’ as being based in conflict. And, when you frame a choice with conflict, it tends to be crunched down into whether it allows you, as a participant in this conflict, to come out on top. Every interpretation, every decision, becomes a way to navigate a way to victory.

To most people, this is what a video game is.

However, none of this is intrinsic to the medium. Stories don’t have to be about conflict, and choice isn’t just a way to win battles, and interest isn’t just the currency of problem-solving. Games structured this way are fine, and it’s great that they’ll continue to exist because I like shooting digital people with digital guns as much as anyone, but when you take a step back from any of these assumptions it becomes obvious how incredibly tiny this conception of what a game is compared to the massive possibility of what games can be. I mean, we’ve already cut off a huge amount of possibility space to explore in fiction by centering our conception on conflict, and we’ve further constrained games to be a subsection of that.

There’s so much resistance to seeing games as anything but engines for presenting choices that navigate supremacy in conflict, but they could be more. They could be anything.

Much as I’d like to think of time spent enjoying good art as a sort of exercise of the mind and the spirit, there’s an assumption there that I wonder about sometimes – no, not the mental or spiritual benefits of art, I am generally convinced of those, but the benefits of good art in particular, as compared to bad art. Surely, while learning about another artist’s carefully conceived and expressed world view is worthwhile, so is picking apart a poorly formed piece of claptrap to discover aspects of your own worldview. Bad art, acknowledged as such, can be a path to self-discovery – simply finding the words to describe what it was you disliked about something can be as beneficial as any other experience engaging with art.

This is why I hesitate to class the experiences we can have with art into any sort of hierarchy of quality. The movie or book or game may have been clumsy and naive, but it might still have genuine insights which were not heretofore available to me – or maybe it was a masterpiece, but still contained niggling flaws which I am compelled to catalog and describe. This is all valuable. What is not valuable is deciding partway through what the experience I am having is and ceasing to engage with the work – to decide 10 minutes in that because I understood the particular narrative trick at play I have nothing to learn, or that because I didn’t understand how it was done there was nothing I can do but gawp in awe. It’s tempting though, to dismiss something as beneath notice or embrace it as beyond knowledge. It’s freeing, being able to enjoy something solely as an experience, in the moment – but it’s also constraining, believing most things to always be beneath notice or out of reach.

I guess if I could distill my general philosophy it would be this: Pay Attention. This doesn’t stop at art. People who are contemptible and unwise often follow some rule of behavior, and even if it’s an foolish and destructive rule it’s better to know what it is, and why it is, than to not. Every friend and ally and mentor and hero carries deep flaws and unseen scars: We are all different, and no one can really live someone else’s life or create their art. We can’t trace, we can’t copy, we can’t merely emulate, we have to actually learn how to make our own art and our own lives. No role can be sufficiently modeled before the fact: Eventually you have to become whoever you are.

All we can do is our best to learn what we can and give what we can. None of this can happen if my understanding stops at friend, ally, mentor, hero, just as it can’t if I write off someone as loser, idiot, asshole, enemy: Understanding cannot stop there, even if it’s easier that way.

We have to look closer. We have to not turn away. We have to see.

Work In Progress

I’ve been trying to stream more. So far I just stream myself playing lots and lots of video games, which is… nice. It’s nice to have a reason to play games, because a lot of the time, without any direct impetus, I will just not do that. I do have concerns about whether this is a good use of my time and energy, whether I’m burning valuable mental and physical resources I could be using on my writing or developing my game. I worry about whether I’m making myself enjoy games less by playing them for an audience or whether it’s pushing me towards a narrower band of games. I think these worries can be adequately combated by the knowledge that if I were not streaming I’d be worried just as much about how I’m not putting myself or my ideas out there enough, not playing enough games to stay abreast of the trends and ideas, and that I was generally shrinking back into silence and isolation.

The grass always looks greenest on whichever side of the fence we have most recently vacated.

Okay then: Say I want to keep doing the streaming thing, but I want to try to channel all this time and energy into something that advances my ambitions of being a Well Known Creative-Type Person. At that point the obvious thing to start doing is to start streaming creative work as well as gameplay. This is eminently logical and also obviously terrifying – or perhaps that’s overstating the case, but it is at least intimidating, for several reasons. One reason is that a huge part of creating something is not having any idea what you’re doing and going down a bunch of dead ends before you begin to catch a hold of what kind of thing you’re actually creating. This can be an uncomfortable process here, at home, by myself, but the thought of exposing that process live on-stream? Oof. On top of that, it’s always deeply frustrating and depressing to me when I put a lot of work into something and share it and it gets absolutely no reaction: Streaming myself working would both amplify the amount of work I’m putting in and give me real-time feedback over how many (or few) people actually are interested and watching. It’s hard to believe that this would be conducive to creating more or better work.

Being okay with sucking at things was a necessary step for me to start actually improving – in particular with art, accepting that most of my drawings would be bad, at least for a while, was the only way I could silence my internal voices long enough to start drawing. Conversely, with music and writing, I think I benefited a bit more from a sort of blissful ignorance in not being able to see as clearly how not-great my early work was… it’s always easy to make yourself feel either good or bad about your work by when comparing yourself to different artists: Just choose whether to view yourself as a big fish or a small fish by calibrating the size of your pond as necessary. It’s easy to be the best writer in your class: It’s hard to be the best writer at your school. Of course, ‘best’ doesn’t mean anything in the first place, but try telling your brain that.

My perception of the inadequacy of my earlier work is a double-edged sword: I can be proud of how far I’ve come, but at the same time it leads to acute worry that I’m actually still incredibly far behind some hypothetical future me. How can I possibly put my work out there when I’m so much worse than I might hypothetically be in the future? How can I share work that isn’t my best work, even if this better work is entirely hypothetical? If I put any of this temporally inferior work out there now I’d only be embarrassing myself.

So, if I want to stream my imperfect creation, I have to not only be okay with sucking, but be okay with sucking publicly. I may suck less frequently now than I used to but every piece of music has a point where it sounds like crap and every portrait has a period of time where it looks like some grotesque misshapen caricature. In the past the main thing that has made me feel okay about these moments is that I was the only one who ever saw them: That’s a tough security blanket to burn.

Along with these doubts other doubts like to surface. I wonder if I’m actually as creative as I think I am, when it feels so much of the time like my work feels so constrained and fuzzy and meandering, when other peoples’ feels so extravagant and full of color and detail and purpose. I doubt whether the things I make are intrinsically interesting to people who are not myself, if there’s a gap between my idea of art and what audiences want to see, whether as I improve my ability to hew closer to my own creative ideals the actual output created by that work will become less interesting and my skill will only alienate me further. I doubt that there will be any place in the world that can accommodate the entirety of what I am or want to be, and I know that other people split themselves up into pieces and find places for parts of themselves bit by bit and I wonder why I find that so difficult.

Being full of doubts and questions is something that I have to resign myself to, the same way I had to resign myself to being bad at art to become better at art. The only way to find my way is to accept that I am lost, because otherwise I will march confidently off in the wrong direction forever, just like almost everyone else seems to end up doing.