‘Habit is a Great Deadener': Peter Molyneux and Waiting For Godus

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by drayfish

Peter Molyneux 22Cans

IMAGE: Peter Molyneux (22Cans)

‘Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—’
- Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Over the last few days most every article written about Peter Molyneux and his company 22Cans has started with some variation on the same sentence:

‘Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…’

(Well, that and the obligatory Waiting For Godot reference that self-loathing pun-junkies like me just can’t resist.) It’s the kind of catch-all observation that’s both undeniably true and open to whatever inflection the author chooses to apply to it.

For those sympathetic to Molyneux it’s a statement of solidarity – an industry luminary, a beloved, if occasionally over-eager creator has fallen into tough times, his reputation maligned by a string of unfavourable news reports. For those who have little patience for the designer, however, it’s a grim kind of schadenfreude. Finally, after years of reckless hyperbole, Molyneux is finally being brought to task for spruiking endless features, and entire games, that never come to fruition.

What triggered this whole mess was a series of glaring own-goals scored by Molyneux himself as 22Cans winds down production on Godus – the Kickstarter funded game that has yet to meet even its primary stated goals almost two years after it was supposed to have been completed. At the Fun & Serious Game Festival this past December, Molyneux announced that he was shifting his attention onto a new project, a smart device game called The Trail. Godus, he lamented, was a game that ‘lacked in narrative, progress and reward’, but The Trail (whatever it was) would be brimming with the stuff.

Everything snowballed from there.

Firstly, for a lot of people the tone of finality and regret rang some alarm bells. After all, whether his sentiments are genuine or not, Peter Molyneux has developed a reputation for disparaging his previous games whenever he wants to promote his next one (the Fable franchise being the most notorious example): ‘Don’t worry about that last game, that’s in the past; this next one is going to do everything that one failed to…’ Hearing this refrain from Molyneux again while mentioning his next project implied that he was drawing a line under Godus and abandoning it – something that came as quite a shock to the Kickstarter backers who were still waiting for a completed version of the game they had purchased. Predictably, social media and the Godus forums lit up with scorn.

Secondly, games journalists started combing back through the numerous promises Molyneux had made over the course of Godus, and the results were immediately troubling. Not only was the game still in an alpha state that lacked all of the multiplayer and competitive functionality Molyneux had been touting from its conception (in some interviews he had spoken of five hundred thousand players engaging simultaneously in dynamic battles; at present it remains a solo experience devoid of conflict), but some core promises from the Kickstarter campaign had been so walked back or ignored that the whole enterprise began to look suspicious…

After declaring that he had used Kickstarter specifically to avoid using a publisher, five months later, having met his funding goal, Molyneux signed with a publisher. The stretch goal of importing the game to Linux appears to have always been impossible. Molyneux’s own employees were posting on forums their dissatisfaction with the project and their regret that core elements of the game would never be completed. Even purchases supplementary to the Kickstarter pledge had not been honoured. Art books were neither produced nor delivered. A behind-the-scenes documentary had not been made. Some of the 359 students who paid for developer consultations and career advice felt they had been ignored.

Most gallingly, however, and inarguably the charge that has cast the biggest shadow on Molyneux, was the discovery that Bryan Henderson, the ‘winner’ of the Curiosity game that tied directly into the promotion of the Godus, had been effectively abandoned by 22Cans.

Henderson, the man repeatedly, publicly promised that his ‘life would change’ after winning the Curiosity challenge, was contacted by Eurogamer, who discovered that, despite Molyneux’s claims that Henderson would play a pivotal role in Godus (he would be ‘god of gods'; he would get a cut of the game’s ongoing profits) almost two years later he has so far received no money, had no direct involvement with the game, and been actively ignored by the company, who even stopped replying to his emails.

In an effort to hose down this controversy, Molyneux apologised to Henderson through the press, explaining that he was baffled as to how such an oversight could have occurred, and made assurances that – despite what principle members of the Godus development team had said – the game was still on track to implementing its online features. Henderson, he enthused, would definitely, eventually get to play the ‘life-changing’ role promised him.

But this latest round of interviews culminated in an exchange with John Walker at RockPaperShotgun who, rather than simply copying down the official quote, walked Molyneux through the litany of seemingly broken promises that the Godus crowd-funded project had already left in its wake. What resulted was so excoriating that Molyneux declared he was being hounded, and vowed to never again talk to the press.

That, he said, would be his final interview.

He said the same thing in an interview he gave to the Guardian, which he conducted almost immediately afterward.

And again to Kotaku, in the interview he did with them.

…And just in case the point wasn’t made strenuously enough, once more to a UK student newspaper called The Linc.

No more interviews! Except for those four and counting.

For those who claim Molyneux has cried wolf too many times, it all seemed like more feigned theatrics.

And so, in this roundabout way, we reach the point in which I too inevitably type the words:

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

Godus MeteorStrike

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Before I get into my opinion – about this RockPaperShotgun interview, about the audience backlash, about the industry and Molyneux himself – I should probably lay out my own history to try to head off any accusations of bias.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got no horse in this race.

I was a great fan of Populous back on the Sega Master System, was intoxicated by the grimy cyber noir of Syndicate on PC, and had a good deal more fun with the Fable series than most it seems, but I was never a Molyneux faithful. Black and White, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper all passed me by, and aside from appreciating that he was a cheerleader for the industry, I never personally invested in any of the hyperbole that has so often made him a subject of ridicule.

‘Acorns that grow into trees’ and generations of children that live on after your character dies sounded wondrous, but at that time no one in the industry had even programmed convincing looking hair, so I was not exactly surprised when his promises fell short. What always struck me as more irritating was that the interviewers he would tell these things to never bothered asking how exactly any of it was possible. They just printed the words verbatim, shook their heads in wonder, and whipped up some anticipatory summary about how eager they were to see the final product.

Perhaps most significantly for this discussion: I neither participated in Curiosity, his grandiose ‘experiment’ in literal social click-baiting (to me it looked futile from its first announcement) nor did I invest in Godus, purported to be the successor to every one of his previous hits (the Kickstarter page describes it as part Black & White, part Populous, part Dungeon Keeper, etc). I did download the free Godus iPad app some months back. I remember thinking it was pretty but a little perfunctory, and deleted it once hit the predictable pay wall for advancement.

So when I approached the RockPaperShotgun interview, I was neither looking to defend Molyneux nor to see him kicked around for my amusement. What I found instead felt strangely inevitable. The natural end result of a cycle that has spun on for too long. It sounds trite, and the pun in the title doesn’t help, but what I found really did make me think of Waiting for Godot, and the uncomfortable tragicomic angst that plagues that play. Of characters locked into dialogue that now feels rote and overly familiar, emptied of meaning. Of people exhausted by the roles that they have no choice but to enact.

Defenders of Molyneux have criticised the interview as brutal and unfair. Walker was getting overly emotional, they say, being belligerent and twisting Molyneux’s words against him. That was not the way to speak to a games developer – an artist. Robin Parrish of Tech Times described it as an ‘assault’. Thomas Ella of Hardcore Gamer went to the hysterical length of labelling Molyneux the messiah in the article ‘The Crucifixion of Peter Molyneux Shows How Far We Have Fallen’. He describes Walker as having ‘nailed Molyneux to the cross again and again’, opining that:

‘We are not dealing with criminals or crooked politicians here; these are artists. Sometimes there will be mistakes, there will be unethical business practices, and there will even be games that failed to meet their creator’s lofty promises, but we are still talking about video games — about entertainment — and that cannot be emphasized enough.’

Voices such as these have waxed lyrical about what a grand shame it is that such a talented artist is now being chastened, unable to voice his ideas. This will stifle creativity itself, they warn. And indeed Molyneux’s response to the interview was to claim that Walker – and a hostile games media at large – were driving him out of the industry. Clearly he was being targeted in a smear campaign designed to tarnish his reputation and tear him down.

It’s an emotional appeal, and one that on first glance is hard to dismiss. Here is a guy who loves the medium and clearly loves talking about it. But to categorise it as an attack on an artist is a gross misrepresentation, one that obfuscates the real issues by appealing to the easy terrors of censorship.

Undeniably, it is a bracing interview. When the first salvo is ‘Are you a pathological liar?’ you can fairly safely assume that the follow up is not going to be, ‘So how do you juggle work and family?’ But nothing within it seemed cruel or unjust.

Whatever else you think of the piece, Walker wasn’t attacking an artist, his work, or his ideas. He didn’t slag off the dog in Fable 3 for having crappy AI, or label Theme Park a failure because it didn’t synch with Theme Hospital like Molyneux once promised. He was asking him – in his capacity as the head of a business – why his company had failed to deliver on goods that had already been paid for by consumers, such as the art books that have still not even been printed, or features like multiplayer that have now been denied due to financing decisions that Molyneux made with third parties. He was asking him why he told investors that he could produce a game in nine months when his own experience showed he had never turned one out in less than three years. Why he would knowingly ask for less money than he was already aware he would need.

Curiosity-cube

IMAGE: Curiosity (22Cans)

He was asking him why a young man who had already been utilised as a piece of advertising – compelled by his ‘win’ to give interviews to publications like Wired, Game Informer, and several news outlets around the world – had subsequently gone uncompensated and ignored by his company. How he could possibly claim to still be overseeing a project if he had already announced he had handed it over to someone else – Konrad Naszynski, previously a Kickstarter backer who joined the company because he believed the game was in trouble.

Consequentially, the interview was a completely legitimate piece of journalism – even that confronting opening question. In Britain, and here in Australia, you see precisely such probing questions from journalists. Just last week an interview with the Australian Prime Minister, conducted by one of our foremost reporters, literally started with the query, ‘Are you a dead man walking?’

In fact, if anyone really wants to cry foul about Walker’s ‘journalism’, then really his only inappropriate moments were when he – clearly sympathetic to Molyneux – took him at his word, or reassured him. When Molyneux claimed to have made good on some of the forgotten student consultations, Walker replied,

‘I think what I’ve done there is fill in one [crack in the story], that’s brilliant news. I’m really glad that that existed and that you did it and that’s good.’

If he were really being an unfeeling bully, such late unsubstantiated excuses would have meant little.

The problem is that despite the occasionally exasperated tone of the interviewer, the only one Molyneux was really combating was himself. Walker was simply quoting back to him explicit promises Molyneux himself had made – often not even in the heady adrenalin of an interview, but written down, contractually agreed, and repeated in multiple venues.

So to me, this overprotective reaction from people who believe Walker stepped over some unspoken line – evoking Molyneux’s status as an artist as immunity from questioning; suggesting that holding an incorrigible day dreamer to account for straightforward business decisions is somehow killing his creativity – is more indicative of another larger problem in the industry, and gaming ‘journalism’ as a whole.

Because there is and should be an important difference between a promotional junket and asking a businessman to explain himself when it appears that might have committed the literal definition of fraud. It’s a distinction that Molyneux is clearly having trouble making, and it is frankly a little alarming that so many other commentators in the industry, wringing their hands about the mistreatment he has apparently just suffered, don’t appear to recognise it either.

Godus Mining_Settlement_cropped

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Perhaps you can argue that the tone of the questioning was a little rough – but again, unlike the majority of the other interviews he would have had with gaming press, this was not meant to be a puff piece. This was not about each participant following along to the dance steps of a prearranged preview, where Molyneux had a checklist of features to mention about the product he was spruiking, and Walker was just hunting for a splashy lead. It was a reporter seeking answers to troubling questions, backing them up with research, and not accepting obfuscation and evasion in reply.

It’s exactly what journalism looks like in any other industry.

To his credit, Molyneux didn’t just take offence and hang up the phone – but that’s because even he knows he to get in front of the story before it swallows him whole. Walker wasn’t beating him up, he was giving him a right of reply; in many cases offering him the chance to clarify his own damning testimony.

That’s not to say that it isn’t still worth asking why so many other Kickstarters and games publishers have not been similarly castigated for shady practices. Why focus on an independent publisher like Molyneux when Ubisoft can advertise clearly phony footage of Watch Dogs in their pre-release marketing and slap embargoes on reviewers to prevent them mentioning the buggy, unfinished mess of Assassin’s Creed: Unity before consumers had made their purchases? Why not tear apart Randy Pitchford at Gearbox for making similarly lofty promises about Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game advertised with fake footage, farmed off to underfunded secondary studios, and released borderline unplayable? But that’s not the same thing as saying such questions shouldn’t be asked.

Lamenting that the entire industry has been apathetic to these issues in the past doesn’t mean that everyone should just give up, continue asking softball, prearranged questions, and agree to play nice. For too long this is an industry that has been beholden to utterly ridiculous trains of hype, where unfinished products are feverishly talked up. Where ‘reporting’ and advertising become inextricably mixed in previews and demos. Where visibly uncomfortable creators are prodded out onto the marketing treadmill to peddle their wares and soulless PR reps fake up enthusiasm for design features that they had nothing to do with, and don’t fully understand anyway. Where early access and pre-orders and season passes actively try to circumnavigate delivering a finished product that can be judged on its own merits.

Thomas Ella’s extremely silly reference to Molyneux’s ‘crucifixion’ is therefore rather revealing because I think it does exhibit (albeit accidentally) the problem in the gaming media that this whole situation has exposed, and why the backlash against Molyneux in particular has such resonance. Because until now the distinction between artist and businessman in video games has been unhelpfully, systematically obscured; and while many might argue that Molyneux is not the worst offender, by his own actions he is the most symbolic.

Because Molyneux made himself a god. A god of the gaming industry.

And people notice when gods come tumbling down.

godus_head-pic

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

There has been a communal mythologising of Molyneux over the years – partly something that he has cultivated, partly something projected upon him. His history of trading on impossible, patently loopy ideas is such common knowledge that it has even spawned a parody persona lovingly lampooning him on social media in the form of ‘Peter Molydeux’, and has given rise to an entire competition, the Molyjam, premised on trying to bring ridiculous, wilfully impractical concepts to life. He has occupied a lofty, indulged position in the industry not just because of his achievements in the past, but because he continues to be such a charismatic, mysterious subject.

It’s what makes him such an appealing interview. He seems open, unfiltered, unrestrained. Consequentially, industry commentators are always swift to describe him as charming. Just read this interview at the beginning of Godus’ development in 2012 in which Molyneux breaks into tears (something he had also done in a couple of other venues and on a pre-recorded Kickstarter video at the time), and the interviewer, describing him as the ‘godfather of god games’, seems utterly enamoured:

Personally, I think [the tears] came from the exact same place as Molyneux’s childlike excitement from earlier this year. He loves games. He loves the possibilities they present. He loves his creations. And even if they destroy him, he’s going to keep investing his heart, soul, and reputation into each and every one. “I think I will be doing games until the day I die,” he said. “At this rate, the way I’m burning through my life, I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer.”

The tenor of this description is all too familiar. Molyneux is besotted with games – in love with them. He can’t be held responsible for getting carried away when he’s so deep in the throes of inspiration.

Never mind that (as a Kotaku article, ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’, outlined) there are numerous anecdotes – some of which Molyneux tells himself – showing him in a far less flattering light. Lying in order to receive a gift of cutting edge computers under false pretences; throwing a stapler at an employee who argued for a higher bonus cheque; taking credit for features that were not his; embarrassing co-workers with impossible demands directly in front of the press.

He has even admitted, while excepting a BAFTA award that he frequently makes big promises that are complete fabrications in interviews just to keep reporters guessing:

“I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep and I really apologise to the team for that.”

Elsewhere he has acknowledged publically describing features that do not exist in the hopes that it will compel his employees to make them a reality.

And yet rather than leading reporters to question him more thoroughly in future, it just becomes part of the cycle; the contradictions just get folded into the grand narrative. Enigmatic genius or playful rapscallion? We’ll just keep describing the endearing glint in his eye and pretend everything he’s saying this time is true…

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the industry because Molyneux makes – and actively courts – headlines. His promises make headlines. His apologies make headlines. The new promises he makes on the back of old apologies make headlines. Even a few weeks ago he warned Microsoft about over-promising on their HoloLens prototype and a predictable slew of articles, ripened with the irony of it all, rolled out.

But in the past three years the gulf between promise and product became too pronounced to shrug off.

Fable Acorn

IMAGE: Acorn Achievement, Fable Anniversary (Lionhead)

It is conventional wisdom that the Beatles’ biggest mistake was claiming that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Pride precedes the fall, and all that. But looking back, Molyneux seems to have tripled down on the self-deification after founding 22Cans. He wasn’t just bigger than Jesus. He was God.

He left Microsoft because he no longer wanted to be ‘constrained by what they can and can’t do'; he wanted to ‘ change the world and everyone will be happy.’ He was going to make the ultimate god game. He was going to make everyone in his audience gods. One lucky winner he was even going to make god of all gods, even cutting him a healthy slice of godly bounty.

Molyneux was declaring himself god of the god game that would spawn a god of gods amongst a network of infinite gods. The hype had built to a colossal, ludicrous level.

Pride precedes the fall.

Because ever since, Molyneux’s signature exaggeration has become less endearing. Since founding 22Cans and soliciting a small fortune through crowd funding he hasn’t just been delighting the press in the lead up to his big reveal – he has been perhaps been misleading the people who had already invested in his vision. These weren’t just apathetic potential customers whose attention he was trying to snare, they were the faithful who already believed in him.

Molyneux is delighted by the word ‘belief’. He believes he can make great things. He believes in the industry. He believes in games. Unfortunately, however, as the past few years have exposed, Molyneux sometimes also uses ‘belief’ as bait, robbing it of its meaning. Belief becomes a caveat. An excuse. Occasionally a weapon.

One of his popular refrains when getting called out for a promised feature that never appears is to regret that his enthusiasm so often gets misinterpreted as a promise. He shifts the blame from himself, the guy who said the words, onto the listener, the one who foolishly took them at face value. He effectively declares, ‘Well, you took the risk by believing me.’ But this ignores the fact that when he makes these statements, he explicitly declares them to be features. He’s not saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if…?’ or ‘This is what we’d like to do if we can figure it out…'; he says: ‘This is what we’ve done. This is coming.’

Believe me.

It’s a semantic sleight of hand that recurs again and again when one sifts through his innumerable apologies. Repeatedly, when it appears that he is accepting blame, or looking wistfully back upon mistakes, the fault is always subtly laid somewhere else. He didn’t lie, he just didn’t know what he was saying. Sure most of the goals won’t be met, but Kickstarter makes you say reckless things. He had to exaggerate.

And this is particularly true for the RockPaperShotgun interview in which his repeated mea culpas actually operate as attempts to make himself look all the more endearing. He’s sorry for being too honest. Sorry for sharing too much. Sorry for being so excited. For caring about what he does.

He’s sorry he tried so hard, but believe him, none of it is really his fault.

Blaming someone for dreaming too big, for trusting too much, feels mean. That’s certainly what Molyneux’s supporters argue in this whole mess. But it’s important to realise that what is coming under attack is not Molyneux, god of gaming. It’s Molyneux, god of marketing. The guy who knowingly traffics in deception to fortify sales. Who said that Fable: The Journey wasn’t on rails when it clearly, at every point, visibly was always on rails. Who said that Kickstarter was the only way to avoid publishers, right as he was signing up with a publisher. Who now admits the final days of crowd funding made him think,

‘Christ, we’ve only got ten days to go and we’ve got to make a hundred thousand, for fucks sake let’s just say anything.’

The people who cry foul at Molyneux’s treatment in this RockPaperShotgun interview are defending the dreamer, the artist, the sincere, if devoid of self-awareness enthusiast of the games medium. But he was not the one who was being interviewed. It was Molyneux who actively mixed those two figures up. And to continue to conflate the two just perpetuates the cycle of spin and marketing that gave rise to this muddle of a god complex in the first place. It furthers the uncomfortably reciprocal relationship that has masqueraded as games ‘journalism’ for too long.

And that is what this whole sad scenario has crystallised for me.

Experimentation is a vital part of creativity. It should be cherished and allowed to flourish – particularly in a medium still exploring and testing its fundamental expressive potential. But too often the videogame industry steps on the toes of its own innovation by promising too much too early – touting features and revolutions in game play not yet tested, funnelling everything into a bullet-points that can be rolled out as hyperventilating advertising promises before anything has even been coded. They become their own form of restraint on inspiration.

Molyneux began this downward spiral not by flying too close to the sun – as many have romantically tried to suggest – but by falling into a pattern of empty promotion, muddying the waters of creativity with marketing. Rather than experimenting with these ideas in his studio, or talking them through at games conferences, he would wind them inextricably into his sales patter. Essentially, what he was asking for was a license to workshop ideas in public, but with everyone playing along that the dreams were real, wilfully forgetting anything that he had said before, and suspending all expectation for the future. He was asking for a belief so absolute that risked becoming pure indulgence, where the promotion was more important than the work itself.

He made himself a god. He promised impossible things. But his need to stoke hope into white hot hype has set fire to his own icon, and threatens to burn the whole thing to the ground.

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, stand awaiting a man called Godot who they have been told will meet them. They too believe. But after an eternity of waiting, with day after day after day of disappointment, of the same messages being spewed by the same messenger – not this time, next time for sure – their hope has finally faded to apathy. Words are empty. Promises unfulfilled. Sentences repeat ad nauseam.

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

‘But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he’s received and I’ll give him a carrot. …. But habit is a great deadener.’

– Vladimir, Waiting for Godot

In Godot there are no more gods left. Just a dead tree and the familiar sting of self-loathing for ever having believed in the first place.

Waiting for Godot Sara Krulwich NYT

IMAGE: Waiting for Godot (Sara Krulwich, The New York Times)

The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish

 LOGO_OSCARS_ON-AIR__2014-color

IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

lego movie group

IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.

braveheart

IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.

Selma

IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

‘Hashtag! We’re It': 2014, A Retrospective (Part 2)

Posted in criticism, literature, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by drayfish

Hashtag 2014 with Cat by Me

2014: The Good (Or Marginally Better) Stuff

In my last post I skimmed the surface of why 2014 was such an enormous downer …to put it mildly. For a few thousand interminable words I blathered on about several of the year’s most unsettling cultural and pop cultural controversies – from Gamergate, to Bill Cosby, to the trend of police shootings of unarmed black men – and briefly explored the way in which these stories were directly forwarded by, impacted with, or responded to in social media.

It was despairing stuff. And I hadn’t even gotten to Ebola, Syria, or made any snotty remarks about Taylor Swift or Flappy Bird yet (no doubt I’ll get to them momentarily).

But now it’s time to dig up and out of the hole. Because thankfully, this need for fellowship and community – a longing symbolised by our use of the hashtag – emerged in other, far more life-affirming ways, as people felt the impulse to join together and help one another out.

Kermit Ice Bucket Challenge

IMAGE: Kermit The Frog’s Ice Bucket Challenge

There was the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the motor-neuron degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Essentially a good-natured update on the email chain letter, it involved people filming themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then calling out others to do the same, raising awareness for the disease, prompting others to get involved, and inviting donations. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as friends, celebrities, and world leaders were called out, eventually reaching the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity that results in parodies, fail videos, Presidential shout-outs, and lazy Simpsons references.

Reading Rainbow, a television show designed around sharing books with children and promoting literacy (and that contained an oddly gloating theme song about flying ‘twice as high’ as a butterfly – why not let the butterflies have that one thing?) was brought back from the dead after its cancelation in 2006. The show wasn’t re-launched on television, but was instead funded by a social media-propelled Kickstarter campaign to be turned into an app that will allow children to stream books and content directly. The Kickstarter met the one million dollar goal it had set for itself in less than a day (I believe eleven hours, actually), and had soon easily raised five million, with the additional funding going to providing free access to the service for underprivileged schools. The grateful joy with which Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton thanked the contributors was wonderfully heartening.*

Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

IMAGE: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

That impulse to share ourselves also surfaced in less purely altruistic contexts, including the way in which we consumed our entertainments. Sure, the days of friends and family sitting around on the couch shouting at the same copy of Mariocart and wrestling for next go on the controller might be largely behind us, but the popularity of Twitch streaming and the re-emergence of appointment television like Game of Thrones meant that, rather than killing off the communal experience of pop culture, in 2014 the lounge room instead just infinitely expanded.**

It was a trend that can perhaps be seen most obviously in the popularity of last year’s surprise schlock-watch Sharknado, a SyFy original film that became a magnet for gleeful, snarky commentary over social media when it aired. This year’s Sharknado 2: The Second One doubled down on the cheesy idiocy of its premise, throwing every B and C-grade celebrity cameo at it they could manage, moving the unconvincing green screens of the whole production to New York City, and building to a climax in which a man (named Fin; I never get tired of that) surfs a shark through the funnel of a tornado while wielding a chainsaw. The resulting Twitter-nado may not have felt as organic and delirious as the first time around, but it was still proof that ironic-viewership had gone global.

Sharknado 2

IMAGE: Sharknado 2: The Second One (Syfy)

Indeed, this kind of social media word-of-mouth is inarguably the reason that some soulless, spiky-haired studio executive, having just flicked through a Venn diagram of internet memes and a budget projection for integrated advertising, green lit production on this year’s most cynical contribution to humanity’s seasonal depressive state: Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. As you can probably imagine, the result – a Reddit image that had ballooned into a tedious viral phenomena and been repackaged into a cheap, gratuitous ‘hate-watch’ spectacle – would have been equally as subtle had the Lifetime Channel just shown a two hour commercial block with the phrase ‘Viewers like you make us sick’ superimposed across the screen.

Even the tradition of after-show ‘water cooler’ critique and speculation accompanying any series that has captured the attention of the zeitgeist has now expanded into its own genre, rife with programs and podcasts that discuss programs sometimes only minutes after they’ve finished airing. Chris Hardwick (who appears to have spent this past year using his Nerdist network to stage some form of world-domination coup) now hosts Talking Dead to mull over AMC’s The Walking Dead; Kumail Nanjiani (likewise everywhere this past year) has dipped into cult television of the past with The X-Files Files (only one of the now countless new Star Wars/Buffy/Twin Peaks/Doctor Who podcasts out there currently propagating like a virulent strain of flu).

Thankfully, shows that invited this kind of devoted analysis were suddenly everywhere. There were the usual examples like Mad Men (heading into its final episodes) and House of Cards (still sneaking up on everyone with full season dumps on Netflix), but some freshmen shows like Fargo (which, as a semi-adaptation of a film, took everyone by surprise by being captivatingly bold, idiosyncratic, and thematically resonant) and True Detective (which ended all handwringing over the long-redundant ‘divide’ in quality between television and film), came out of the gates fully formed, demanding their audience’s communal attention right from their opening minutes.

true detective

IMAGE: True Detective (HBO)

True Detective in particular kept people riveted for weeks, locking them in the kind of grand pop cultural conversation arguably not seen since the early days of LOST (before everyone realised that show was just yanking their extremely long, irresolvably convoluted chain***). Audiences wildly speculated on the identity of the killer, plunged into deep-dive critiques of the show’s signature gothic splendour, and playfully mocked Mathew McConaughey’s ‘flat circle’ monologue until the dialogue,

‘Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again…’

became more a metatextual commentary on our own impulse toward de-contextualised memes than it did the hunt for the monster in the existential labyrinth of the human soul.

Or whatever.

But for me, the best moments in television this year came in the conclusions of two beloved and irreplaceable programs, both of which took their last bow by acknowledging the intimacy and strength of community.

The Legend of Korra was a four-season television epic (a sequel to the sublime Avatar: The Last Airbender) so wondrous that Nickelodeon consistently seemed baffled to know what to do with it. For two seasons they barely advertised the series, for a third they hurried it to air with no advertising at all, burning through half the episodes in a marathon and then yanking the rest to screen ‘online’ in a bold new strategy of anti-marketing. For the fourth season they threw up their hands entirely and decided to just let the internet have at it, leaving room, no doubt, for more decade-old repeat screenings of Spongebob Squarepants.

Korra-next-to-statue

IMAGE: The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)

Thankfully the show’s audience were not as incapable of investing in grand, serialised narrative as Nickelodeon believed them to be, and the show was lovingly followed to its conclusion by a grateful fan base who got to see one of the finest evolutions of a character and universe ever rendered in ‘childrens’ programming. Over the course of its run, Korra tackled themes of bigotry, propaganda, anarchy, totalitarianism, terrorism, social upheaval, genocide, and post traumatic stress, all punctuated with dynamic action, sumptuous visuals, and a robust roster of richly drawn characters, any of whom (perhaps with the exception of Mako) could easily have headlined their own show.

I mean, Asami was a female Batman.

A FEMALE BATMAN, PEOPLE!!!

And with its final season revolving around an expansive metaphorical exploration of World War 2, with fascism and the rising threat of atomic weaponry at its core, the show built to an exceptional crescendo that, rather than simply ending with the easy resolve of a villain slain or an army destroyed, instead chose to conclude with a perfect encapsulation of the shows principle mission statement: that compassion and sympathy are our greatest tools for peace.

Not a smack down drag out (although it did deliver some sublime action also), but the willingness to extend oneself with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding – to build a community that is strengthened by diversity, and in doing so, consequentially, to cultivate peace within oneself.

cr_11032_05.jpg

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

In a very different alternate reality, The Colbert Report bid farewell in December in order for its star, real-world Stephen Colbert, to move to CBS in 2015 and take over the retiring David Letterman’s The Late Show. But once again – ironically for a show that gravitationally bound to the ego of its fake conservative pundit ‘Stephen Colbert’ – the show instead chose to celebrate community.

Alongside the show’s searing satiric wit, much of its genius can be traced to the real-world Stephen Colbert’s unique and expansive skill set. Colbert is an exceptional improvisational comedian, coming up through Second City and honing his craft for years on The Daily Show, and it has been that skill at sustaining, adapting and evolving a joke, that seemed to inform the show. The ‘Yes/And’ of long form comic narrative allowed it to go wandering to truly surreal lengths: the Sean Penn Metaphor-Off; the Late Night Ice Cream Battle with Jimmy Fallon; Cooking With Feminists; the Shred-Off with the Decemberists; his decade long argument with his mirror-self, his only ‘Formidable Opponent'; the Daft Punk debacle; and his eternal wars with Jimmy Fallon, the liberal bias of reality, and bears.

Not surprisingly then, the finale proved to be an equally epic comedic wandering toward resolution. After faking out the audience for months with allusions to the character’s inevitable demise – ‘Grimmy’ the Grim Reaper was seen lurking around the set, pointing ominously to a dwindling clock, (and one assumes swiping office supplies) – the show made the inspired decision of subverting this expectation and having Colbert – by accidentally killing Grimmy himself – ascend to a state of omnipotent godhood, allowing one of the greatest long-form satiric characters of all time to finally take his place amongst the pantheon of American folklore, ushered into eternity with Santa Claus, Unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and …Alex Trebek?

Okay.

colbert goodbye

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

But while riding into the nethersphere of iconography, Colbert’s final act, letting the mask partially slide away, was to send a heartfelt thanks to the ‘Colbert Nation’, the fans and community that were an integral part of the success of his show.

Because as this final episode, taking its last bow, elegantly acknowledged: without the Colbert Nation there would have been no Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, he would never have appeared, in character, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, delivered his blisteringly subversive speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, ran for president, or in the saga of the SuperPac (what I personally thought was his greatest achievement), had his audience raise a fund he was able to exploit for practically any insidious, disingenuous or libellous act he could imagine, unequivocally revealing just how corrupt and lawless the entire system of campaign funding and advertising still remain in politics.

The character of Stephen Colbert (‘The T is silent, bitch’) was an egomaniacal blowhard trying to remake the country into his own conservative fantasy, but that character needed – nay, required – a legion of chanting, ecstatic fans, in on the joke and feeding him with ironic adoration that masked a genuine affection.

And as Colbert stated in his climb to the stars, it sure as hell was fun.

Speaking of fun (and hell), videogames too often found themselves structurally and thematically about trying to foster communities (if one can momentarily scrape aside the festering garbage of GamerGate). Even though the majority of my personal videogame highlights of the year were solitary, it is hard to deny that the games of 2014 were marked by a move toward enticing co-operative play, with multiplayer elements intruding upon traditionally solo experiences.

…Even when they probably shouldn’t.

Assassins Creed Unity

IMAGE: Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest in a series fundamentally concerned with being a solo assassin, working aloneone, single, solitary, lone clandestine agent, by himself, against the world, individually (have I built this up enough yet?) – decided that the next logical step in the series’ evolution was to swallow its own multiplayer component and turn the game into a four player drop-in hack and slash fest.

Because teamwork.

Admittedly, despite the game’s subtitle, the single-player option is still there (beneath all the reminders of co-op and companion apps and in-game purchases), but the game’s publishers, Ubisoft, seemed so keen for the world to try their new multiplayer feature that they rushed the game out the door before bothering to nail down a stable frame rate, put faces on some of their character models, fix whatever it is that makes you arbitrarily fall through the streets of Paris into a gaping white abyss, iron out the innumerable visual and audio pop-in delays, or check for game-crashing main menu bugs.

They also decided that every reviewer of the game should be legally prevented from reporting on those myriad problems until a day after the game had been released when it would already have been purchased by eager fans.

…Because teamwork?

But hey, cynics: that’s not because it was an unfinished, glitchy mess, victim to Ubisoft’s now unsustainable yearly-release franchise model! It’s because it’s more ‘cinematic’ that way.

…And no girls allowed.

destiny

IMAGE: Destiny (Bungie)

Bungie, the creators of Destiny, were likewise so sure that multiplayer experiences were the wave of the future that they seemed willing to gut their single player game before release, portion off content and locations for future DLC, and wholesale remove character options and plotlines, bargaining that the lure of frenetic team-based multiplayer experiences would make up for the remaining hollow shell of loot grinds and Peter Dinklage’s mono-droning that now substituted for a story. (And now no one even knows where that wizard came from!)

Then there was Titanfall. Remember Titanfall? The slick, frenetic multiplayer-only mash of parkour and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots from Respawn Entertainment, the team that built and were then screwed over by the Call of Duty franchise. Titanfall may not have been the revolution that many fans had hoped for, and like Destiny, the narrative might feel like little more than an afterthought – an insect buzz in your ear while you are concentrating on not getting shot in the face – but it has certainly already impacted multiplayer shooters, with Call of Duty already peeking over their shoulder for ‘inspiration’. Somewhere that A.I. dog from Ghosts is wiping a tear from its eye with one paw as COD ‘borrows’ Titanfall’s mech-suits, verticality, and futuristic aesthetic, and slaps a grinning Kevin Spacey on the front of the box so that no one has to pretend to be surprised when the character goes full super villain at the most arbitrary moment in the plot.

Elsewhere, Nintendo – whose Wii U console (to put it kindly) has struggled in the past couple of years with low sales almost no third-party support – managed to regain some ground in the marketplace by banking on new iterations of two of their most popular multiplayer franchises, Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart 8 – again proving that tight, competitive and mischievous gameplay can still captivate. Indie darlings like fencing multiplayer Nidhogg became impossibly addictive. And Blizzard’s unassuming but insanely addictive competitive electronic card game Hearthstone (currently conquering everything from PCs to iPads), redefined and legitimised freemium games.

…Also there was Flappy Bird.

flappy_bird-2

IMAGE: A Bird That Flaps (.GEARS Studios)

I –

I have no idea what the hell Flappy Bird was all about.

…Self-flagellation in a year of self-loathing?

But whatever it was, it too was marked by an element of pop cultural social bonding. People shared this weird little curio with its nostalgic (read: ‘ripped off from Mario Bros.’) aesthetic, frantically competing against each other to better one another’s maddeningly miniscule scores. It was argued over and defended. Trippy little time-waster? Ad revenue peddling trash? Game? Carnival skill tester? Quaint? Evil? It was an unavoidable discussion point in the endlessly evolving debate over the legitimacy and breadth of videogames. And eventually – as is the mark of anything that has contributed for good or ill to the sum total of that conversation – it was soon cloned into an oblivion of re-skinned sludge in the app store.

But the greatest examples of videogaming’s inclination toward the sharing of experiences came not at the whim of a publisher shoehorning in a co-op function, but through social media venues like Twitch and YouTube. Online personalities like PewDiePie have become sensations by inviting people to watch them play videogames (like that cousin who would ‘let’ you watch over his shoulder while he played his third run-through of Street Fighter 2); people share footage of their best speed-runs; first plays can scratch that itch to fire snide commentary at poorly-made games without having to pay for, or suffer through them, yourself.

Then there was Twitch Plays Pokemon – one of most curious social experiments to ever witness unfold, and a wild insight into unfettered groupthink.

It started when an Australian programmer designed a way in which Twitch chat could be used to life feed commands for the Gameboy game Pokemon: Red. The game could therefore be played in real-time, non-stop, to a global audience, who were themselves telling the game what its next moves should be. Soon, an audience of several thousand viewers (at times up to over 100,000) were inputting directions all at once, which the game then tried to play out.

Twitch_plays_pokemon_animated

IMAGE: Screenshots from Twitch Plays Pokemon

And the result was captivating – if utterly bonkers. Strategies were bickered over on the fly. Trolls fought against those genuinely trying to advance the game. An escalating war of moves and countermoves went on behind the scenes to try and get the action on track. Eventually a democratic voting system even had to be implemented so that the game could advance at all.

It took just over a fortnight of unbroken, erratic play for the game to be completed; but even more remarkable than the heartening fact that the project managed to advance at all, what was really surprising was the way in which it revealed, in microcosm, the way in which we human beings like to impose a communal narrative upon our daily experiences.

While the game chugged along, prompted by the live, unpredictable hive-mind breaking, advancing, and testing its boundaries, whole histories and mythologies were soon spawning organically from out of the apparent chaos. On screen, the main character and his menagerie of pocket monsters reacted in skittish, twitchy, irrational ways, but from out of this disorder, a saga began to unfold.

Each Pokemon was given a new name (often sounded out from the alphabet salad punched into the renaming feature), and imbued with distinct personalities and motivations. There were treasured artefacts, sought for and inopportunely discarded. ‘Consulting the Helix Fossil’ grew from a playful justification for the player character’s random selection of this useless tool in battle, to a divine ritual, a consultation with the true deity of this bizarre world, and a battle between gods that inflated into an eternal conflict between good and evil, anarchy and democracy. There was betrayal (‘The False Prophet’ who abandoned them all); heartbreak (the darkness of day eleven, when so many Pokemon were needlessly released as the chatlog repeatedly pressed the wrong commands); loss after loss; but in the end, impossibly, through perseverance and passion, victory was achieved and the journey through a literal chaos, finally validated.

It was a true shared mythology, equally as frivolous and convoluted as it was palpable and portentous; one conceived and made manifest in a marathon improv from contributors (even those trying to troll it into madness) devoted to a singular, communal experience.****

In new media (if you can call a media that’s now at least a decade old ‘new’) the podcast world exploded with the coming of NPR’s Serial, the first real pop culture podcast sensation. A true-crime story helmed by NPR reporter Sarah Koenig, Serial revisited and reinterrogated one real-world murder cold case over the course of multiple episodes. The result was a cultural phenomenon, a series that harkens back to the days of early radio in which families would crowd around to hear the latest instalment of their weekly shows, stirring the same kind of audience dialogue (and somewhat muddled demands to beware of ‘Spoilers’) that would usually accompany a critical darling HBO series.

Much has been made of the debate that the show has triggered about whether or not Adnan, the man convicted of killing his high-school girlfriend, was guilty. Several publications (most notably and hypocritically The Intercept this past couple of weeks*****) have criticised Koenig for showing undue bias toward Adnan and thus stirring up an army of online armchair detectives; but at its core, at least in my experience of it, Serial was never about finding some exonerating piece of evidence, or advocating on anyone’s behalf.

Sarah Koenig by Meredith Heuer

IMAGE: Sarah Koenig (Meredith Heuer)

Koenig’s twelve episode journey was a staggered documentary investigation into the layers of a presumed slam-dunk conviction that exposed, as those layers were peeled back, some troubling implications for the case and the American legal system as a whole – despite whether Adnan ‘did it’ or not. Its why Koenig anticlimactically never comes to a decision on whether she believes Adnan is ‘guilty'; why so many who followed Serial remain convinced he is a murderer and why so many others are baffled that anyone could consider him a suspect at all.

What Koenig was instead exploring was the way in which the machinations of the justice system can all too often be clouded with the frailties of human perception. How notions of ‘truth’, ‘justice’, and ‘proof’ are prey to our imperfect memories, biases, obfuscations, and self-interests. Whether Adnan was a charming psychopath or a kid screwed over by an incredibly unlucky series of events, it was the process of his trial and sentencing that was really the focus, one that, when light was thrown upon it raised a lot of troubling questions – from shifting witness testimony, questionable prosecutorial conduct, negligent representation, and untested DNA – no matter what the ultimate result.

And perhaps that is one of the best symbolic representations of the curious nature of 2014, and its tendency toward the makeshift community of the hashtag. Serial was a podcast that, by the very nature of its medium, was designed for individual people to download and listen to it privately, in their own time, to make of what they will. Instead it triggered communities. Not only the most downloaded podcast in history, it gave rise to sprawling group discussions in Reddit and forums, resulted in listening parties, handwringing speculation about ‘trial by audience’ in the press, inspired people to fund a school scholarship in memory of the victim, and to flood Twitter with a torrent of conversations punctuated with everything from ‘#freeAdnan’ to ‘#MailKimp’.

Throughout the year the hashtag became an avenue for society to voice publically some uncomfortable issues that have perpetuated for generations. In September, in order to bring awareness to the prevalence of domestic violence, thousands of women used the hashtags #whyistayed and #whyileft to discuss their decisions to remain within or escape abusive relationships. After Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations, in which she spoke hopefully about a future in which both men and women work together toward equality, the hashtag #HeforShe went viral. And in July the seemingly irresolvable conflict in Israel and Palestine had a moment of – even if only fleeting – hope when the hashtag #JewandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies was shared across the globe.

It was also a outlet through which many could express grief, or acknowledge loss. When cricketer Phil Hughes died after a freak bowling accident on the field the hashtag #PutOutYourBats became a communal signature of condolence. Celebrities like Robin Williams, Harold Ramis, Elaine Stritch and Philip Seymour Hoffman were remembered in outpourings of memories from their life and work. And poet Maya Angelou’s final tweet before her death in May was a fitting, elegant farewell, re-Tweeted by almost a hundred thousand fans in thanks:

Maya Angelou Final Tweet

Finally, in the last few weeks of the year, Hashtags proved themselves to be a means of expressing the very best impulses in humanity.

On the 15th December, a lone gunman held eighteen people at gunpoint in a cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. What unfolded was a lengthy hostage standoff that the media soon began misreporting to be a ‘Muslim Extremist’ action. In particular, Rupert Murdoch’s fear-mongering, sensationalist rags, despite having absolutely no evidence with which to back up this speculation, declared it an ‘ISIS death cult attack’, trying to tap into a terror that far too many Australia’s politicians have likewise preyed upon in the past decade and a half, that ‘Muslim’ is somehow a synonym for ‘terrorist’. (Murdoch, like some kind of Twitter carrion bird, later even gleefully used the whole incident as advertising for his paper’s bloodthirsty fatuousness.

illridewithyou

IMAGE: #illridewithyou

But in spite of this prejudicial reporting and fear-mongering, the public decided to respond in a kinder, more inclusive way. Fearing that people of the Muslim faith might be harassed the next day by ignorant, angry commuters that had been stirred into a xenophobic spin, a hashtag, #illridewithyou, started up over social media. People shared their public transport timetables and details, offering to be a friendly companion for anyone riding on those trains and buses and ferries who might otherwise be feeling alone or targeted. Rather than being some territorial mark of identity, or prideful sign of exclusivity, #illridewithyou was an invitation, a promise. It offered solidarity and support in the face of prejudice and fear.

(Murdoch’s papers, of course, were swift to sneer at the whole thing as another ‘left-wing’ conspiracy of superiority – the usual nonsense – all while conveniently failing to mention either their own inflammatory misreportings or their boss’ ghoulish gloating.)

There’s no denying that this year was rough.

Atrocities went on around the world seemingly unchecked. Almost three hundred school girls and women were abducted by terrorists in Nigeria. School children were slaughtered by Taliban gunmen. Sunni extremist group ISIS seized control of much of Iraq and Syria. There were beheadings. Slaughters. An Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa. We saw new Cold War sabre rattling as Russia ignored international outrage at their invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. Multiple (multiple!) commercial airplanes went missing or were shot from the skies. Horrible racial injustice seemed not only entrenched, but was aggressively defended by many in power or in the media. A group of artists and critics were demonised and terrorised because of their gender. If the FBI is to be believed, North Korea successfully threatened an entertainment company into forgoing its freedom of expression.

Like something Shakespearean, even society’s clowns didn’t seem to be safe: Joan Collins died, Bill Cosby was disgraced, and, again, Robin Williams, a man who delivered endless delight to others, lost his own battle with crippling despair. Then, right before the holidays, everyone learned that the United States, self-described beacon of freedom and democracy, has had its CIA engaged in, and consistently lying about, a horrifying, ongoing campaign of torturing war prisoners.

And in case that didn’t haunt your dreams enough, Dick Cheney emerged from his Darth Vader egg tomb to cynically evoke 9/11 to the news media again, show no remorse for even the innocent people that have been brutally tortured – in some cases to death – and proudly declare that he’d be happy to implement such systemic violations of the Geneva convention again ‘in a minute.’

So… Merry Christmas?

Dick Cheney Still Cheering for Evil

IMAGE: Dick Cheney on Fox News (Fox News)

A lot of the time, 2014 really did suck.

But in spite of all this – sometimes as the only way of dealing with it – it also proved itself to be a time in which people sought out one another for comfort. Tried to make them laugh. Tried to remind them that despite everything going on around them, they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t alone.

This year reminded us that, sure, the internet can be a cesspool of inward looking bias, an echo chamber of hatred and misinformation and conspiracy and cruelty, but it can also be a mass of firing synapses, linking us in incomprehensible, inspiring ways. People riffing on the day’s events in 144 characters or less; swapping personal stories in comments sections; commiserating in blogs; collaborating on research in Google docs; breaking stories in Reddit; angling for social change on facebook; fighting censorship on YouTube; turning eight seconds into surrealist vaudeville on Vine; desperately hoping that MySpace is still a thing on MySpace.

We have now stretched out into the vast, wild nothingness of the internet, a space untethered from location and time; one in which we can bring with us as much or as little of ourselves as we like.

Sometimes this means that people, freed from the responsibility of identity, can act like raging, abusive, trolling lunatics, but other times, those times in which social media reveals itself to be a fount of collaboration and conversation, the hashtag can be a symbol of so much more. It signifies a space in which we can dare to get giddy about Star Wars again, or to grieve the passing of those who inspired us, or to giggle at memes that we all know are ridiculous, but that momentarily lighten our psychological load.

And so, for me anyway, this year finally showed what that hashtag actually represents.

The hashtag is the best and the worst of us, all our impulses and yearning for community collapsed into metadata key. Four lines, intersecting across one another, gaining strength from that support. It represents not just some longing to shout our existence into the nether, but to be heard and to hear others. To remind ourselves that, despite the darkness, there are others out there eager to huddle closer to the light.

hashtag

* Seth McFarlane pledged one million dollars to the cause, continuing to mess with my mind by endlessly ping-ponging between heroism and villainy. Million dollars to literacy? Good. Million Ways To Die In The West? Unmitigated evil. Being the principle producer on the return of Cosmos, one of the year’s greatest joys? You are a ray of sunshine. The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover? You are a monster who must be stopped.

** Note: These are points that South Park made, albeit far more elegantly, in their two-part season finale episode. Does anybody but me care that I wrote the first draft of this before the episodes aired? No? I just sound sad and defensive? …Fair enough.

*** Someone else might want to throw Damon Lindelhof’s new show, The Leftovers, into this list of great new shows, but after LOST, the idea of another Lindelof-run mystery-bait premise about broken souls yearning to understand themselves means I’m already out.)

**** For anyone interested in reading an account of the narrative that unfolded in Twitch Plays Pokemon, you can find a grand one here.

***** Two of The Intercept’s reporters, in an act of extraordinary hypocrisy, recently published two interviews – one with the original prosecutor of the case, the other with the prosecution’s star witness – and then used these accounts to try and discredit Koenig and Serial as being disingenuous, unethical, sensationalist, and derelict in their journalistic obligations. They felt so strongly about this that they published a lengthy introduction to the interview with the prosecutor in which they declared all questions of Adnan’s guilt to be moot, and Koenig to have lied about trying to contact the prosecutor for an interview. They then proceeded to leap on to Twitter to rile up anyone who might take issue with their work and even distastefully try to use the murder victim herself as a cheap emotional ploy to avoid criticism. It was a weird little tantrum meltdown so baffling that even other reporters had to step in to question their self-aggrandising ‘trolling’.

Meanwhile, the fact that they were basing all of this solely on the accounts of two people who had every reason to paint themselves in the best possible light, that their reporting made several factual errors, that they edited a direct quote to misleadingly make it work to their own damning narrative, that it was they (not Koenig) who was creating a media spectacle out of the principle witness by revealing his name to the world and giving out personal information that was never revealed in Serial, and, astonishingly, that their own two witnesses were now openly contradicting one another’s stories (the witness having admitted that much of his court testimony was a lie – something they let pass without even a follow up question to the prosecutor), made their petulant grandstanding about Koenig’s supposed failings as a journalist all the more farcical.

Vargas-Cooper in particular even went so far as to give her own interview to The Observer, again failing to see the mind-boggling hypocrisy of trying to make herself the story while chastising Koenig for apparently doing the same, and describing those interested in the case as ‘delightful white liberals who are creaming over This American Life‘. The hubris was staggering, and one presumes an embarrassment to The Intercept.

‘Hashtag! We’re It': 2014, A Retrospective (Part 1)

Posted in criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2015 by drayfish

Firstly, my apologies for the long delay in posting. Life intrudes. Sometimes life intrudes in truly horrible ways.

Secondly, I’m sorry for the length of what I am about to inflict upon you all. I swear, this began as a two paragraph review of a movie (my ‘movie of the year’, as if anyone cared) then grew out into an overview of the year’s cinema (because how else would I cram in more pissy comments about Michael Bay?), and finally morphed into a whole rant about the year itself. The good, the bad, and the Flappy Bird.

I’m not even going to pretend that it’s worth reading. It’s long, and convoluted, and needlessly tangential (just look at this intro; seriously, what is wrong with me?) But if you can be bothered: this first post will be about the depressing stuff, a selection of some of the grim social gloom that’s hung over the year. The next one promises to be more upbeat.

But before we get to the fun, let’s get to ripping off that bandaid…

hashtag

2014: The Bad Stuff (A Misleadingly Small Selection)

So it’s that time again, a time when, as inevitable as the turning of this old world, self-righteous blowhards like myself decide to arbitrarily look back upon the previous twelve months and make grand, sweeping, laughably unsubstantiated declarations about the year that was. …And since this coming year is 2015, it will inevitably contain some kind of lazy Back to the Future reference.

You may recall that last year, with my complete lack of any power, I declared it the ‘Year of the Selfie’ – which basically meant that I presented a bunch of tortured connections between film, games, literature and the news, and tried to argue that society was in a burgeoning state of self assessment.

I argued that texts like Tomb Raider, Man of Steel, and whatever the hell Baz Luhrman was trying to say with a 3D Great Gatsby film, were evidence that, as a culture, we were all trying to reassess ourselves and our personal moral codes amidst a miasma of new social media, the knowledge that the government was actively and aggressively violating our privacy for the sake of security, the dread of continued racial injustices like the shooting of Treyvon Martin, and the arrogance of Microsoft’s decision to make the Xbone its own private NSA Elf on a Shelf, sitting in your house monitoring you incessantly. Whether you wanted it to or not.

But this past year, if I were presumptuous enough to bother making some more lazy generalisations (I am), I would argue that instead of singular selves, crying out into the cyber stratosphere to assert our existence, this year appeared to be more about forming social communities from out of the void. Rather than individuality, in 2014 we sought out like-minded souls, taking comfort in the confirmation of others. Social media was embraced, and sometimes weaponised, as a means to reach others, to voice concerns, to offer support, to plead for more.

The hashtag suddenly became a kind of social adhesive, indicating one’s contribution to worldwide conversations, signalling the subscription to a cause or particular beliefs, or to keep ironically hashtagging ‘#FirstWorldProblems’ so that people hate you. Indeed, the hashtag was so ubiquitous that in June it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sometimes this longing for community emerged in truly ugly circumstances, however, and perhaps the most regrettable example arose in the swirling Lovecraftian horror of Gamergate.

Colbert Report Gamergate

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

It’s a nightmare I’ve already addressed, but to summarise briefly: Gamergate was originally triggered by an hysterical, ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni who, in a spiteful act of vengeance, decided to try slut-shaming his ex-girlfriend, an independent games developer named Zoe Quinn, online. Gjoni published a rambling, slanderous rant in which he accused her (amongst most anything else he could) of sleeping with games journalists for good reviews – an accusation that has already proven untrue.

Gjoni’s private meltdown was soon fanned into a blaze by conspiracy theorists and angry misogynists like King of Pol (who has since had some troubling things to say both about the holocaust and his Gamergate brethren) and Sargod of Arkkad (who uses some highly suspect editing to bolster fatuous arguments, and who would very much like it if the women folk would quit complaining). But it really kicked into gear when it was shamelessly co-opted and exploited by cynical sociopaths like ‘journalist’ Milo Yiannopoulous, who dressed it up as the tip of an iceberg of corruption in the games media and assigned himself the status of messiah.

To digress for just a moment, Gamergate can probably be best understood by examining these two principle figureheads of the movement (if one sets aside Adam Baldwin, who appears to have gone insane). Because on closer inspection both Eron Gjoni and Milo Yiannopoulous prove to be paradoxical and problematically hypocritical figures.

Gjoni, although desperate to attract as much attention to himself as possible (eliciting sympathy to paint himself as a victim at the very moment he is using it as a weapon of revenge to destroy his ex-girlfriend’s life) is swift to erupt in rage as soon as it impacts him negatively in any way. Meanwhile, in his only interview he is unable to even explain the point of the maelstrom he knowingly stirred up. He ping pongs from regretting what he did to regretting absolutely nothing; being disgusted by the movement, to being immensely proud of it; wanting to apologise for numerous women harassed as a result of his false allegations, but not really because other people (anyone who’s not him apparently) need to be responsible for their actions… or something…

Yiannopoulous, on the other hand, was a guy who only a month previous to jumping on the Gamergate bandwagon, had dismissed anyone who played videogames as sad, lonely ‘weirdoes [in] yellowing underpants’ playing out fantasies of rape and murder, who ‘need therapy and their internet connections taken away by mum’. A year earlier he had declared the ‘teens and man-children addicted to these immersive video games’ who ‘support a multi-billion dollar video games industry’ to be ‘an awful lot of unemployed saddos living in their parents’ basements’.

And yet, having seen an opportunity to use this enraged mob as an army in his own hateful anti-feminist culture-war (a crusade that even a cursory glance back at his bibliography of vile screeds reveals he has been waging for years), he suddenly, miraculously, underwent a conversion. Overnight he embraced the videogame medium so devoutly that he was soon slandering Zoe Quinn as a mastermind of fraud and sleaze in an industry he now claimed to care deeply about – despite the fact that she was innocent of every charge he brought against her – and he felt justified belittling critic Anita Sarkessian’s right to express any views on the medium – despite the fact that she has been exploring games far longer than he has, and has never used anything like the denigrating language he repeatedly employed to sneer at the people who play them.

Indeed, Yiannopoulous’ bias and insincerity is so overt that often his work reads like broad farce. Within this article, a shambolic tirade of specious ‘facts’ and paranoid hyperbole, he literally describes Zoe Quinn as a soft core porn actress, a rapist and a murderer; calls Brianna Wu a lying, delusional, ‘dishevelled, psychologically unstable transsexual'; and accuses Anita Sarkeesian of being a ‘marketing scammer’ who knows little about games and who has exploited this situation for her own fame (remember, he’s talking about Sarkeesian here, not himself); all while imploring his fellow GamerGaters to not resort to ‘personal attacks’, and to only tell ‘basic truths’. The hypocrisy is so brazen it is breathtaking.

milo yiannopoulos kernel editor

IMAGE: Milo Yiannopoulous (Richard Saker/The Guardian)

Unsurprisingly, if you do bother looking up some ‘basic truths’ on Yiannopoulous they paint a rather unflattering picture, as he appears to be no stranger to corruption and exploiting people himself). To quote Yiannopoulous: ‘This is the pantheon of self-promoters, opportunists and oddballs who have made gamers’ lives a misery over these past few months.’ Presumably it was only by accident that he left himself off that list.

Anyhoo.

For a time, many people who weren’t prejudiced, self-serving lunatics also got caught up in Gamergate’s ‘ethics in games journalism’ rhetoric. This was because Gamergate was exploiting a genuine sense that there has been, and remain, issues of corruption in the games media that have gone unaddressed for years. Issues like: the influence of multimillion dollar publishers upon editorial policies; the seedy grey area of promotional consideration disguised as commentary; underhanded marketing practices like shipping unfinished products and preventing reviewers from warning customers away.

Unfortunately, it seems Gamergate never really was about combating such corruption – as has been shown by their lack of interest in any of the genuine instances of shady business practices in recent months (remember all the protests over Ubisoft embargoing reviews of Assassin’s Creed: Unity until after the game was already on sale? …yeah, didn’t think so). Meanwhile even further women in the industry continue to be targeted with threats and harassment (even though that supposedly was never the point…), and the leaders of Gamergate have descended into an internal death spiral of recrimination, intimidation and overt fraud. It turned out that ‘ethics in journalism’ really was just a catch cry used to deflect attention from the actual agenda of the movement, primarily the demonization and harassment of female programmers and critics, and anyone who could be slapped with the pejorative ‘Social Justice Warrior’ label.

And so, as the weeks have ticked by, support for the movement has steadily waned, with those who had employed the sister hashtag #NotYourShield – supporters who were often women and members of the LGBT community (the few who weren’t sock-puppet accounts of course) – coming to realise that they were ironically being used as a shield anyway, only this time for the zealots in Gamergate.

To many, myself included, Gamergate proved to be just an ugly, sorry con-job waste. For the miniscule positives that it achieved (scaring a couple of game websites into writing up a list of ethical practice guidelines), it was blithely destructive, self-serving, and responsible for actively misleading countless participants who believed they were agitating for a change to coercive advertising practices, not to serve the paranoid delusions of some fear mongering culture war. And it goes without saying (but is worth saying loudly anyway) that nothing can be said to justify the dehumanising abuse and threats of rape and murder that came to signify the movement.

But in a far kinder light than it ultimately deserves, what Gamergate proved is that people are willing to join together into likeminded communities if they feel that something they love is being threatened, or if they believe they can petition for change. It’s just as shame that those who may have really wanted to appeal for more ethical practice in games coverage were able to be exploited and shouted over by those pushing their own anti-feminist, anti-Social-Justice-Warrior, anti-criticism agenda.*

Elsewhere, hashtags were a means of reviving buried stories and compelling journalists to question the powerful.

Whatever the truth of the accusations, it is telling that after a decade of little to no attention being paid to claims that Bill Cosby had, over the course of his lengthy career, drugged and raped multiple women (it turns out in some cases this silence was directly engineered by Cosby himself), this was this year that the story finally exploded into the public’s consciousness. And social media, for better and worse, was directly responsible.

The match was lit by comedian Hannibal Buress on stage, with a routine that replied to Cosby’s history of condescendingly criticising younger black comedians with the line, ‘Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.’ There was more to Buress’ routine, and a clip of it soon went viral, with people willing to take up his invitation to Google the name ‘Bill Cosby’ and ‘rape’ and being shocked with what they found.

But bafflingly, at the exact worst moment in which this resurfaced news was circulating through Twitter, Cosby’s web media team decided to invite people to use a program on his site to turn him into a meme. The exact phrase was, ‘Go ahead, me meme!’ and to put it as mildly as it is possible to put anything, the results, shared across the globe as #CobyMeme, were surely not what they were expecting. The onslaught of references to pudding pops, hoagies and violent sexual assault were like a MadLib from hell, vomiting up a disturbingly representative manifestation of the colliding imagery any Cosby fan was now trying to process: America’s favourite dad perhaps being predatory serial rapist.

Cosby-Meme

IMAGE: #cosbymeme (one of the tame ones)

The whole continuing saga has exposed a number of troubling issues in society. Not the least of which is how much bias and ignorance women still face in society whenever rape is mentioned, and how, even after the story was forced back into the public consciousness, a campaign of scoffing and victim blaming soon followed.

Firstly, it’s perturbing that it took a male comedian to speak up in order for this decades-long saga to finally become an issue. Although multiple women have identified themselves as victims of Cosby over the years, the accusations had gone largely unremarked by the mass media – so much so, in fact, that Cosby’s biographer felt no qualms in completely omitting the civil court case of 2005, in which 13 women filed a class action sexual assault case against the comedian, from his exhaustive book.

Predictably, maniacs like Glenn Beck were swift to liken anyone in the media reporting on or questioning Cosby about such accusations as being rapists themselves, but even in more liberal circles, rape was revealed to be a problematical topic that many would rather just ignore. One could look at the tone-deaf, ugly message of Aaron Sorkin’s second-to-last episode of The Newsroom to see the way in which many, Sorkin apparently very much included, would prefer that victims of sexual assault keep quiet about the crime visited upon them rather than making everyone else uncomfortable about the thought that someone, somewhere, might get falsely accused.

And so, although social media became a place where people could openly voice their support for these women and lament at the frequently tin-eared coverage of some news outlets (including CNN reporter Don Lemon’s witless questioning of one alleged victim, in which he literally asked her why she didn’t just bite his penis off, responded to with #DomLemonReporting), it was also a place in which they were tarnished as gold diggers (despite the fact that most have not asked for any kind of money), hungry for fame (despite some of them already being famous and many actively trying to avoid the spotlight), or sexually promiscuous frauds. A disturbing recurring sentiment was that these women ‘knew what they were getting into’, despite the principle theme in each of their accounts being that they were drugged against their will after mistakenly believing they were with someone safe.

The flip side of this social media saturation is that now that the fantasy image of Bill Cosby has been eroded – the one inextricably entwined with loveable, learned, morally upstanding old Dr. Phil Huxtable – it has kicked open the doors on re-examining many other instances in which Cosby has behaved in mean-spirited, unsettling, coercive, or outright deceitful ways – all stories that have previously gone either unremarked, or seemingly kept hidden behind a wall of celebrity privilege.

A more thorough account of the numerous sexual assault allegations being brought against Cosby can be found here, and the full history of the story as it played out in social media can be found here, but whatever the truth of these accusations (although as the numbers of women sharing strikingly familiar horror stories keeps climbing and anecdotal evidence from Cosby’s former co-workers continues to mount, it doesn’t look good), the whole saga has been inextricably bound to social media.

Hashtags gave the story new life when the mainstream press had been willing to let it fade forgotten (a point emphatically expressed by reporter David Carr, who gave an account of his own impulse to ignore these details in the past, and his personal experience being chastised by Cosby); they have presented a window into the real-time damage that these details were wreaking on Cosby’s carefully cultivated wholesome image; and they have offered a venue for people to vent their spleen – whatever their perspective on the story – in a court of public opinion that is simultaneously empowering, therapeutic, and potentially ruinous.

Social media also became an essential space for people to voice their shock and concern over what appears to be continuing examples of entrenched racial injustices in the United States.

After the outrage sparked last year by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighbourhood watchman who stalked and gunned down an unarmed seventeen year old African American schoolboy named Treyvon Martin, one would have hoped that such racially motivated deaths would be a thing of the past. Instead, they seemed to have multiplied, with the number of fatal incidents between armed white police officers and young black civilians reaching a despairing crescendo.

Michael Brown Protest

IMAGE: Protest for Michael Brown (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With an alarming regularity, this last year saw numerous news reports of unarmed black men being killed by armed officers, with the further shock of few, if any, charges being brought against those officers who chose to employ lethal force. To list only a handful of the many such instances in recent history…

August of this year saw eighteen year old Michael Brown shot dead in Fergusson by Officer Darren Wilson. The details of the altercation that led to Wilson unloading his firearm are disputed – Wilson insists that Brown was lunging at him through the window of his car when he first fired, and that he only shot in self defence; witnesses describe Brown being several feet away in the street with his arms raised in submission – but in the end, Wilson had fired twelve shots at the unarmed Brown, leaving him dead. A grand jury decided not to indict. As a result of this verdict, and the appearance of deliberate prosecutorial mishandling of the case, protests broke out across the country, in some instances marching peacefully for change, in others breaking out in violent frustration and met with a militarised police response.

There was also the death of John Crawford in August, shot dead in Walmart for carrying an unloaded BB gun that he was presumably thinking of purchasing. Even though the footage later released shows Officer Sean Williams discharging his weapon literally only seconds after arriving on scene – while Crawford was still talking on his cell phone – Williams was likewise not indicted by a jury. (And just in case the story wasn’t already awful enough, Crawford’s girlfriend was then harassed by police throughout an hostile hour and a half interrogation, during which they refused to tell her he was dead, threatened her with imprisonment, accused her of being on drugs, and tried to get her to say that he brought the gun to the store himself).

In November, Tamir Rice, a twelve year old African American boy playing with a toy pellet gun, was shot to death by a police officer who, once again, had opened fire only two seconds after driving up to him. After the shooting, the boy’s distraught, fourteen year old sister was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car, and his mother was threatened with arrest as she tried to reach where her son lay bleeding to death. And just in case the whole story wasn’t horrible enough, despite the officer who killed Rice, Tim Loehmann, being found unfit for duty two years previous, having a history of ‘dismal’ handgun performance, being overly emotional, and saying that he joined the Cleveland Police looking for ‘more action’, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, Jeffrey Follmer, still felt the need to go on television and and tell everyone that the killing was ‘justified’. …Oh, and he also thought that a football player expressing his freedom of speech and wearing a t-shirt that asked for justice for Rice and Crawford was ‘pathetic’.

So he sounds like a great guy.

Back in April Dontre Hamilton, another young, unarmed black man was shot dead by Officer Christopher Manney . According to Manney, he and Hamilton got into a fist-fight after he confronted him, and despite being unarmed, was apparently so dangerous that Manney had to shoot him 14 times. Even given Manney’s non-proportional decision to take lethal action, the County District Attorney John Chisholm decided not to press charges.

But perhaps the most disturbing case for how gruesome this year was in the race relations of a supposedly enlightened western society, there was the death of Eric Garner in July. Garner was an unarmed black man who was choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo while surrounded and outnumbered by several armed law enforcement officials.

Garner had just broken up a fight between two other men when he was stopped by two officers who began accusing him of selling illegal cigarettes – meanwhile letting the guys who had been fighting get away. Garner, offended by being accused of a crime immediately after preventing one, asked why he was being harassed, raised his hands, and asked not to be touched. Pantaleo responded by putting him in a headlock – a completely illegal form of restraint banned by police two decades ago – and then proceeded to choke him to the ground so violently that Garner died, literally pleading for help to anyone who would listen that he could not breathe.

And then here comes the really, really unsettling bit.

Because even though the entire thing was caught on videotape (by a local who had already captured footage of police brutality in that area just a week previous), even though Pantaleo had used an illegal, life threatening move on an unarmed man who had not been charged with anything yet and who was not even fighting back, even though the medical examiner had ruled it a homicide, and even though Pantaleo can clearly be seen administering the chokehold on Garner while several other officers assist, pushing his face into the cement footpath and kneeling on his head after he was down, a grand jury decided to not indict him.

He will face no charges.

Protester for Eric Garner

IMAGE: Protester at the ‘We Will Not Go Back March in Staten Island (Justin Lane/EPA)

As a consequence, Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’, have taken on a whole new meaning, becoming a catch-cry for those who believe that this kind of racial injustice is systemic in the US.

And it is easy, sadly, to see why. That sense of galling, unfathomable constriction, of being crushed by a system that seems engineered to value black lives less than white, where it appears that police are free to kill African American suspects on sight and be exonerated by the legal system after the fact, even in the face of extraordinarily damning evidence – that is a feeling that every African American living in the United States must have to wrestle with every day, and it would have to be choking.

It’s a dread that has been articulated by many this past year, and one hardly needs to search far to hear African American citizens admitting that they feel afraid for themselves and their loved ones in such a climate; but one of the most striking examples for me was Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, who, after the grand jury acquittal of the officer that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, addressed a crowd before his performance with a stirring, heartbreaking account of how he now fears for the safety of his two sons in a world that doesn’t seem to value their lives as it does others.

It was a powerful, moving speech, that cut through the mainstream media’s usual white noise of sensationalism, where pundits were already busy describing Fergusson protestors as ‘racial arsonists’ or likening them to ISIS, or complaining that Obama was meant to have put an end to all ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ was at any given moment. Killer Mike instead spoke from the heart, as an individual who felt the pressure of that verdict as symbolic of what he had always feared (and which now seemed confirmed) for the future of his family. And not surprisingly, as that realisation washed over him, he sounded like he couldn’t breathe.

It was entirely fitting then that Killer Mike’s message should be disseminated by audience members recording it and sharing it through social media, because as this string of police shootings and brutality on unarmed black men has continued unabated, it has consistently been social media toward which people have turned to digest the horror unfolding in the news. Sharing videos and eyewitness accounts were often the only way in which to counter the narrative being presented by official channels; too frequently it was the only way in which such stories were heard at all.

Hashtags, once innocuous methods of organising fragments of conversation amidst the borderless sprawl of the internet suddenly became a means of showing solidarity and community in the face of the far more dehumanising forces of legal and moral apathy. They were a comfort; a protest; a reminder; a promise.

In a world that seems to be impregnably divided into distinct classes – fans and critics; men and women; celebrities and audiences; black and white; police and citizens – hashtags managed to forge bonds, share experiences, and remind us of the commonalities that unite us rather than the fears that drive us apart.

But it was in our pop culture entertainments that these bonds could be seen rendered in broad, colourful metaphor. So with 2015 looming, I’d like to travel down that road one last time in the next post…

What’s that, you say? The previous sentence just seemed like a really tortured way to cram the word ‘road’ into this cobbled together conclusion?

Well that’s because:

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…**

Back to the Future To Be Continued

* I want to get off the topic of Gamergate now, because it truly is a horrid subject upon which to dwell, but before I do I want to recommend an article, ‘A Ship Sailed Into Port: On Bias, Controversy and My Friends’ Games’ by Maddy Myers, to anyone and everyone. It’s fantastically well-written and insightful anyway, but the fact that it manages to speak to the hateful, devastating impact of Gamergate, both on the industry and the individuals within it, and to give a nuanced, passionate account of what it is like to be a critic and someone who has had to suffer this pathetic, pointless harassment, makes it extraordinary, and more than just a little heartbreaking.)

** Actually, yes we probably still do need roads. For all the cars and stuff.

Gate Keeper Games: The Co-opt Option of GamerGate

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by drayfish

angry-mob

Well isn’t this horrible?

The past several weeks there has been an eruption online unlike anything before seen in the gaming media. It has been vicious, hurtful, weirdly both organised and shambolic, and has devolved into petty name-calling and accusation on all sides.  It’s the kind of shocking issue that demands a response from every free-thinking, rational observer, and I know that people have been wanting me to weigh into the debate.*  So even though I’m neither a videogame ‘journalist’, nor one of the members of the enraged contingent of ‘gamers’ calling for action, I’m going to do add my thoroughly ill-informed voice to the fray.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about it:

Sonic the Hedgehog’s new scarf.

It looks idiotic.

There. Discussion concluded.  Huzzah!  Justice has been done!  Peace has been restored!  Everyone return to their homes!

Okay, so that didn’t work. Because no matter how stupid Sonic’s new scarf looks (and it does), obviously it is not what has been at the forefront of every discussion of videogames for the past couple of months.

No. Sadly – very, very, very, very sadly – I’m referring to ‘Gamergate’, the latest, and perhaps most extreme Rorschach test of gaming social media movements.  To some, it has been a call to arms for journalistic integrity in the videogames media; to others, it’s a reactionary, at times utterly psychotic territorial squabble with ‘No GRLZ ALLOWD’ scrawled in crayon on the door.

Whatever your perspective, though, it would be hard to argue that the whole thing isn’t a complete mess. With artists and critics having been driven from the field (and their homes!) in fear, with whole swaths of the videogame audience being tarnished as misogynists or terrorists, with some people arguing for more transparency and others literally just calling for critics they don’t like to shut up, it seems like the moment you scratch the surface of this thing, it all unspools into a labyrinth of contradictory agendas, counterarguments and inconsistency, with no two people seemingly arguing the same thing.  And this is all despite the misleading appearance of bipartisanship – the us against them trap; ‘gamer’ versus ‘journalist’ – that too many people on all sides of the argument seem to be willing to fall into; one that has frequently, misleadingly been reported in the mainstream press.

Indeed, to an outsider, superficially, the whole situation probably looks a little like being stuck at a nightmarish dinner party, where some long-time couple – the videogame media and the videogame audience – have just exploded in a horrible fight.

They’re one of those couples that have clearly had a fractious relationship for some time – everyone could see that, even if they refused to acknowledge it – but now, tonight, they’ve finally snapped and started screaming hateful abuse at one another in front of everyone.  Suddenly both of them are hurling every ugly, petty, spiteful (sometimes even knowingly inaccurate) accusation they can at one another, just so that it hurts.  Just so that it sticks.  Just so that they, and everyone else at the table, know that they’ve been feeling ignored and maligned for quite a while, that they’re not going to take it anymore.

The truth, of course, is far more complicated. Because not only is there some fact mixed in amongst all the hyperbolic hatred (lies work so much better that way), but there are more than just two opposed voices in the mix – and some of them are only too happy to have shamelessly coopted the discussion, making vicious comments under their breath to spur both ‘sides’ on, turning debate into division and delighting to watch the whole thing blow itself all to hell.

But for now, while the cutlery on the table is shaking with every pounding fist, and everyone looking on, feeling sick with shame, bows their heads into their wine glasses to avoid eye contact, what’s clear is that this couple – the players and the industry – is on a precipice. This is the moment in which it’s gotten so ugly, so overt, so undeniable, that something has to change.  Because this can’t go on.  Because yes the ones shouting the loudest are hurting, but the issues go deeper than the insults, and the damage is far more toxic than just words.

And so, as ill-advised as this may well be, I want to offer a few scattered thoughts on this chaos. Not because I think they’ll ‘help’.  Not because my utterly subjective opinions are by any means conclusive or inarguable or ‘right’.  And believe me: not because I am under the delusion that anyone actually gives a crap what I think.  Mostly just because I want to remind myself that there is some nuance amongst the angry confusion, that things can’t simply be boiled down – as some have unhelpfully tried to do – into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict, where one side is self-evidently ‘right’ and the other is unquestionably ‘wrong’.

After all, it’s precisely that kind of partisan, unbending mentality – with heroes and villains and easy stereotypes – that enables people to get whipped into such furious zealotry. It allows some to excuse fraud or hideous threatening behaviour to themselves , because, hey, they’re the ‘good guys’, right?  So who cares how they won?  Destroying your opponent is just a means to an end.  And those guys were ‘bad’ anyway, so who cares?

So instead of resorting to cheap generalisations and clichés, I’m going to try to speak to specific examples of people amongst the crowd. To offer my perspective as an observer, and to voice things that I think are worth repeating as many times as possible, particularly as the conversation (if it can be called that) gets even more crazed and unkind.  Again: these are just fragments of random thoughts, in most cases pure opinion, and are meant only as personal observations applicable to those I’m addressing, not to some faceless one-size-fits all mob.

The result is long. Too long.  Seriously too damn long.

So if you want the TLDR (or: Too Long Don’t Care) spoiler: when you boil it all down, I’m mostly just going to plead. To plead with each of them; all of them; ‘Gamers’, ‘Games Journalists’, and ‘Industry insiders’ alike.

I’m going to ask them to please stop.

Because there is an important and necessary discussion to be had here – several of them, to be honest –  but no one is going to get to any real debate if everyone is wilfully misrepresenting everyone else; if hate and abuse are being waved aside; and if naked contempt is the base level from which everyone speaks.

So here goes…

space-invaders

(Although, before we move off the topic entirely: Sega, do something about the scarf.**)

***

Firstly, to anyone, anywhere (but particularly in the mainstream press) who thinks this whole backlash against an art form is ‘unprecedented':

It’s not.

As counterintuitive as it may at first seem, the first myth to unpack when approaching a discussion of everything that has unfolded recently, is the misconception that this is all somehow totally unprecedented. A lot of ink has been spilled (a lot of it online, but some even in the mainstream media) about how ‘Gamergate’ is entirely unique; an incomparable audience backlash against an Art form.  It’s actually an observation that’s been used (in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways) to imply that the videogame community, on all sides of the argument, must be filled with some rather immature people if they could overreact to their entertainment in such an extreme, unparalleled manner.

Now, you could perhaps say that it is one of the more personally ferocious – with threats of rape and severe injury being levelled at artists; with organised campaigns of harassment and slander being directed at critics – but frankly, dishearteningly, we humans have a long sad history of freaking the hell out and rising up in fury in response to our Art.

Sure, we like to tell ourselves that we’re past all that stuff now, that those were just the dark, unenlightened days. But with every generation we keep presenting new examples of Art being trashed as unworthy or offensive, and artists being persecuted as agitators – particularly so whenever a medium is in a state of growth or transition.

In the late 16th century Caravaggio was called the ‘antichrist’ of all painting (a bit harsh), supposedly threatening to lead all artists who might follow his style and technique into damnation. In the 1950s Charlie Chaplin and the pointed political satire of his films seemed a little too ‘communist’ for Red Scare era USA, so he was subject to a campaign of slander by conservative columnists and the FBI, labelled everything from a philanderer to a white slaver, having his films threatened out of theatres by conservative lobbyists, and eventually finding himself run out of the country in political exile.  In 1960 Penguin Books was prosecuted in the United Kingdom for publishing an uncensored version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, an over-three-decades-old book by one of the most celebrated writers of all time.  (Indeed, check out just a taster of some of the books the USA has banned over the years for being ‘inappropriate’ in a list compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union).  In 1989, a touring exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe – which included images of BDSM acts and same sex couples embracing – led to several protests, threats to cut funding to associated galleries, and even charges of ‘pandering obscenity’ brought against museum directors.  And one need not even linger on the grotesquery of the Third Reich’s targeting of artists like Paul Klee and Max Ernst for creating ‘degenerate Art’.

Indeed, when I first heard of the ‘Gamergate’ controversy – and specifically the harassment some of its supporters had inflicted upon game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian – my first thought was of two infamous moments in history in which audiences similarly went so irrationally, chaotically wild…

The first, on the 29th May 1913, was Stravinsky’s first performance of The Rite of Spring.  Listen to the piece now and you will be struck by just how impactful Stravinsky was upon all music that followed in the 20th century.  From it’s opening, impossibly high lilt on a bassoon, through its thunderous pageantry and discordance, it is a staggering work.  Indeed, even aside from the innumerable classical composers it clearly influenced, it’s hard to imagine the entire history of cinema without his sweeping sound design.  John Williams alone owes him such a debt that it’s almost criminal he doesn’t have a co-credit on the Jaws theme.  Seriously).

Rite of Spring Original Dancers and Costumes 1913

IMAGE: Original dancers in costume for The Rite of Spring (1913)

But if you’d attended its premiere performance, you would have heard nothing but boos. Because by all accounts – and to put it politely – that night his audience went completely f**king nuts.  Only moments after the curtains rose, a large portion of the crowd had already started hissing and jeering and swearing and stomping their feet.  As the show proceeded, they made so much noise that they drowned out the sound of a full, booming orchestra, preventing anyone else from hearing it too.  Stravinsky fled backstage in fear; someone kept switching the lights in the hall on and off (like you might do to distract children) trying and failing to calm things down; a splendidly attired woman in one of the private orchestra boxes leaned over to the next box to violently slap a man in the face.  And this was an orchestra crowd!  The genteel and upper class – out of their minds with fury.  It must have been like seeing the Monopoly guy pull a shiv.

The second example that sprang to mind was a notorious incident surrounding two performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in New York in 1849.  The two productions had been scheduled for the same evenings, one starring Edwin Forrest, the most renowned American actors of his age, and the other starring William Charles Macready, the most renowned English actor of his day, who was touring his production in the USA.  Fans of both actors became agitated that the other man had the temerity to try and play the same role, on the same nights, in the same city; and as the dates drew nearer, the hostility grew so heated that there were angry tirades written in the papers, propaganda spread amongst the populous, protests, vandalism and threats of violence at each man’s performances.

Then, after a few days of the shows running concurrently, on May 10th the two livid crowds met in Astor Place in a swarm of around ten thousand people, and in what was a surprise to no one at that point, the whole thing erupted in a full-blown street riot.

Literally.

There were bombardments of hurled stones. Brutal clashes with the police.  Windows smashed.  Bricks thrown.  The theatre was being physically torn apart, with people repeatedly trying to set fire to it – despite Macready and his audience still being trapped inside.  By the end of the night around thirty people were dead (many shot by police), and well over a hundred were injured.  Those who escaped the theatre alive described the performance as, ‘Still more enjoyable than watching Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’

Astor-Place-Riot-1400

IMAGE: The Astor Place Riot

It seems crazy now that such a horrendous disregard for life, property, and public safety could have emerged from a squabble over who played the better version of Shakespeare’s scheming Scottish king – but of course, that’s only a fraction of the truth. In actuality, the hostilities between the two fan bases  were enflamed by anti-British protestors, who resented the thought of an Englishman drawing acclaim away from their home-grown American talent.  By stirring up the still-lingering resentment over English rule, these politically minded antagonists coopted a disagreement about aesthetic preference and mutated it into a racially intolerant fear campaign.  Add to that the fact that Macready and Forrest had spent the previous few years mired in a contest of petty personal antagonism – chasing each other around one another’s countries, egotistically competing for attention – and the whole thing becomes very foolish and unfortunate indeed.

Which brings me, finally, back to video games – a medium itself too often dismissed by those unfamiliar with the form as just violent, childish competitions; one that, in the past several weeks, has put on the mystifying, rancorous display that has led many people to conveniently forget about Astor Park, and Stravinsky’s frenzied crowd, and the persecution of the Little Tramp, all to label this the audience backlash without equal.

So again, to anyone who thinks this is unique: not so much.

That doesn’t make it ‘right’, and it certainly doesn’t excuse anything done in its name, but it is disingenuous to imply that ‘gamers’ are the first audience to ever overreact – even with violent, discriminatory, irrational rage – at a work of Art.

Oh, how nice it would be for civilisation if that were true…

***

Secondly, to anyone who doesn’t really know how all this got started:

Hey, a few weeks ago I was right there with you.

But no doubt like you, when the name ‘Gamergate’ first swam into my consciousness, I was mightily intrigued. Despite not being a member of the games media, and being nowhere near consequential enough for my jabs at EA or Microsoft’s underhanded business practices to land with anything but a wet flump, the medium of videogames, their perception and acceptance as an Art form, remains close to my heart.

And it’s not as if anyone paying attention can be blind to the many issues bubbling away under the surface of the industry…

I’ve spoken before about the perception of bias in the videogame media.  About how poorly it reflects on the medium that paid preview junkets and lavish advertising arrangements can be so commonplace between publishers and reviewers that they often go undisclosed.  About the way in which industry writers have, at times, unhelpfully reduced ‘gamers’ into clichéd mobs, devolving more nuanced conversations about potential problems in the industry and the review process by depicting anyone who might question the status quo as enraged, entitled, ‘vocal minorities’, too stupid to comprehend Art.

I’ve also spoken (only just recently) about how corrosive exclusionist language like ‘real gamers’ and ‘hardcore audiences’ can risk being on the legitimacy of this medium.  Rather than validating the ‘true’ fans, to me it often just alienates the whole form, making both videogames and their enthusiasts look closed off and territorial –  an unbefitting image for a medium all about experimentation and shared experiences and co-operative play.

And applying the suffix ‘gate’ to a controversy? Come on.  That implies some pretty huge revelations.  Big, empire-shaking truths.  It’s Watergate – the moment when the highest office in the most powerful land was called to account for its corruption and deceit.  It’s about the reclamation of legitimacy through thorough, reasoned truth telling.  That’s a big promise.

gamergate logo

So ‘Gamergate’ sounded like a compelling rallying cry. What kind of smoking gun must have been found to warrant a title like this?  I mean, this is an industry in which it is just accepted that swag and junkets are routinely lavished on ‘journalists’ in order to help sway their preview coverage of upcoming products.  One where Microsoft have clandestinely paid YouTubers to live stream their games and talk them up without disclosing that these are therefore the literal definition of advertisements.  One where several industry insiders have been fired for even raising questions about some of these murky practices.  One where Duke Nukem Forever was a thing.  An actual thing!

Who did Activision or Sony threaten to blackball this time to get favourable publicity for their game previews?  What kind of seedy, undisclosed, cross-promotional extortion could set the bar lower than inviting games journalists to tweet free ads for their game in order to win a Playstation 3?  Who did EA have killed that could trump getting a reviewer fired because he didn’t praise their game enough?  Did someone find Crash Bandicoot’s corpse in a basement torture pit?

From a cynical perspective, it’s hard to set the bar much lower on some sections of this industry – so whatever these ‘Gamergate’ people had their hands on must have been solid gold proof of corruption unlike anything ever seen before.

Hoo nelly. I was salivating.

And what did we get?

The gossipy smear of a jilted ex-lover trying to slut-shame his former girlfriend.

…No really.

It seemed that what kicked off all of the acrimony that followed was an accusation from a guy called Eron Gjoni claiming that his ex, a game developer called Zoe Quinn, had effectively tried to sleep her way to the ‘top’. (…The ‘top’ apparently being the promotion of a free browser game designed to bring awareness to the issues of chronic depression and suicide.  That lofty Xanadu.)

Suddenly the spectre of Nixon and wiped recordings receded and I was instead recalling words like ‘Bridge-Gate‘ and ‘Rosen-gate‘ and ‘Monica-Gate‘ and ‘Shoelace-Gate‘ and ‘Rodeo-Clown-Gate‘ and ‘Nipple-Gate‘ and ‘Gates-Gate‘.  They were all ‘gates’, sure, but less the kind that needed to be torn down, and more the kind that you step over because you’re too lazy to unhook the latch.  (…And seriously can we get a new damned suffix for scandals already?)

Where was the meat of this thing? Where was the substance?!  I wanted to believe, but why were people congregating around this specific ‘outrage’ – which at best seemed to be a sorry character assassination from a disgruntled ex spewing the word ‘liar’ and ‘sex’ as though it were an involuntary tic?  And why was an actor from two of my all-time favourite shows, Firefly and Chuck, going all Chris Brown on women in the videogame industry?

Adam Baldwin Gamergate tweet

It was weird. Confusing, ugly, and weird.

There had to be more to it.

It turns out there really wasn’t. At least not with the original story.  The pertinent charges in Gjoni’s rambling, hysterical outburst – in which he accuses Quinn of sleeping with …well, everyone,  including reviewers that gave her positive mentions of her game – turned out to be untrue.  The criticism and scores her work received were not written by anyone she was said to be dating, so this invasion into her personal life was not only slanderous, but irrelevant.

So then why all the rage? Why the outcry? Why the sudden mock surprise that game makers and game reviewers should know each other personally?  It’s been common knowledge for decades now that game publishers and developers hire from within the ranks of their media (to take but one solitary example: look at a list of previous Game Informer employees and track the places they have gone on to be employed); likewise designers can be (in some cases the most aggressive) critics of their competitor’s work.

And yet for some reason it triggered something. People started rallying around the story.  Quinn was suddenly the face of corruption in the industry.  Not some CEO, like a Don Mattrick or a John Riccitiello. Not someone running a major publisher or an industry-leading, taste-making journalist.  Not whichever thug in a suit threw their weight around to get Jeff Gertsmann fired for writing an unflattering review for Kane and Lynch 2.  No.  A small, indie developer.  Who it appears wasn’t involved in the corruption she was accused of, and whose primary ‘crime’ seems to have been ‘being a crappy girlfriend’ – at least according to the testimony of an emotional ex-boyfriend with an axe to grind.

Please tell me this wasn’t all just a good ol’ fashioned witch burning…

***

To anyone who thinks Quinn ‘deserves’ to be burned as a witch:

Are you nuts?!

Sorry. I broke my own rule there.  I wasn’t going to get judgemental or petty or insulting.  …But seriously.

Put aside that the accusations of ‘sleeping with writers for positive reviews’ were proved false; put aside the cowardice and illogic of blaming one woman for an industry lousy with misdeeds; no matter what you think of her, there is no way that what has been inflicted upon Quinn can be considered a fitting response.

Quinn was publically and privately harassed – attacked and intimidated on Twitter, pestered over the phone, menaced through email,  vilified, and threatened with physical and sexual attack – all by a disturbing amount of crusaders who somehow conflated threatening one woman into silence with tackling institutional corruption.  She was accused of fraud and manipulation; and because those railing against her believed that the media wasn’t making a big enough deal about the scandal, she was even accused both of stopping an entire industry from reporting on it (somehow), and of having forum moderators on numerous sites including 4chan and Reddit delete discussion threads (despite these threads being described as too slanderous, hostile, and potentially illegal by the mods themselves).  And always, throughout it all, that slur about her being ‘sexually promiscuous’ kept surfacing, again and again, revealing far more about her accusers than it did about her.

Zoe Quinn

IMAGE: Zoe Quinn

And yet the outrage was never proportional with any other shady industry dealings…

Even in this past week it was revealed that the biggest game of the year, Destiny, the first salvo in Bungie’s new uber-franchise, has on-disc DLC.  Material, already made and paid for has been discovered in the base game, withheld  behind a second exorbitant pay-wall  for future release in a game that already feels stripped of content.  And yet relatively few (if any) people are making a fuss.  One of the biggest, most over-hyped games in the history of the medium, participating in a glaringly underhanded business practice (one inherited from publishers like CAPCOM who have strived to perfect the procedure***), and yet far more angry screeds and protests have been offered about how dangerous Quinn’s behaviour apparently was, even though it’s been proved that she never actually did what got people so worked up in the first place.

It’s bizarre.

Now, to be clear: Quinn may be a bad girlfriend – I wouldn’t know. She might be personally unpleasant; she might be an utter delight.  She may speak twenty-seven different languages, cry marmalade tears, be part centaur.  My point is: it doesn’t matter.  It’s utterly irrelevant.  The original accusations of corruption brought against her were false, the slander of her character was immaterial, and the threats she has endured are inexcusable – even if every single thing that her detractors were saying was true.  Even if she was the one who cancelled Firefly.

…Wait – is that why Adam Baldwin is so mad?

And yet her demonization continues unabated, with many still keen to fashion her into an effigy – a symbol of the videogame media’s shame. And aside from being terrifyingly misguided, the greater irony is that this ends up being a massive distraction from the real issues that need to be addressed in the industry.  At the very moment Quinn is being decried as pure evil, a developer like Bungie is being shrugged off as doing what comes natural (‘Hey, they’re a big company trying to make a profit, man.  What do you expect?’)

Ultimately all it has proved is that – whatever else you think of her; Centaur or no – Quinn must have real guts to persist in spite of it all.

***

To anyone who thinks that women in gaming is a problem:

No.

Just, no.

I can’t bring myself to believe that the people who hold this belief make up a large portion of the gaming community – especially considering half the gaming community is made up of women – but I have read commenter s express this opinion – often in quite repugnant ways.  By their reasoning, games are really by men, for men, so women, both as creators and players, don’t really belong.

So to those people, those specific people who actually believe that kind of exclusionist, sexist, backward nonsense, I want to make this as clearly and as strenuously as I can:

There is no problem with women in gaming.

There just isn’t. That would be like saying that there is a problem with women in Art, or women using libraries, or women in politics, or women using the internet.  It’s asinine.  It’s indefensible.

Now, if you want to argue that women face greater struggles than men when breaking into the gaming industry (an undeniable fact of life when most every workforce leaves women proportionally underpaid), or that they have to fight a lot harder to be heard on creative teams that are still dominated by men (I’ve heard several stories expressing exactly that), or that there are still too many instances in which female players have been the targets of inexcusable sexual harassment, then, sadly, you will find a wealth of examples to prove your point.

But you cannot – you cannot – say that they have no right to be there.

Escapist Cover for Femal Game Journalists

IMAGE: Title slide of an exceptional collection of essays compiled by The Escapist

There is a reason that humanity looks back in shame on things like ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains and job advertisements that say ‘No Irish’ – and trying and argue that half of the human population has no right to participate or be heard in the production and consumption of one of its most prominent Art forms is just as backward and vile.  Thinking that they don’t, trying to reduce an entire industry and medium down to some juvenile boys club, is just sad.

Particularly so because it has already had such a poisonous effect. Once Quinn was accused, several other female developers and critics in the field were attacked too.  Journalist Jenn Frank and critic Mattie Brice (who was also a game designer), both passionate advocates of the medium, have been tragically harangued and threatened out of the industry after they dared voice their disappointment with the situation.

And such instances reflect very poorly on the ‘Gamergate’ movement, because whatever its goals may be, thanks to this fringe of abusers it will always remain stained with a tone of sexism and vindictiveness. That’s not to say that ‘Gamergate’ at large doesn’t make some pertinent points (I’ll get to those momentarily) but since this whole mess began with an overt tone of misogyny (let’s all judge this slutty woman who used her slutty powers to do slutty things for sluttiness), and has been used as a cudgel to terrorise more women out of the industry (because they don’t belong there anyway, apparently), it completely hijacks the whole argument.  Who cares if a portion of what they are saying has merit if the rest of it is utterly reprehensible?

(Even Quinn’s ex-boyfriend realises this. His republished original blog post now carries a disclaimer distancing himself from all of the harassment being inflicted upon Quinn and ‘her friends’.  …Although he was also screen-capped in a 4chan forum encouraging the horror being inflicted upon her and everyone she knows, even scheming with several others to try and ‘destroy’ the lives of her boyfriend and other people in the games industry.  …So he may not be the most reliable, ethical voice in all this.  To say the least.)

***

To anyone who has said anything hostile or angry about Anita Sarkeesian:

Please, for the love of Metroid, stop.

Obviously things were heated at the time. Once the knives were out for Quinn, once accusations were being flung from all sides, in all directions, maybe it seemed like provocation that Anita Sarkeesian, a critic in the midst of an extended series of video essays about the representation of woman in videogames, would release her latest instalment.  But it wasn’t.  And even if it were, there’s still no excuse.

But because the new video was (as much of the series had been) critical of the way in which women have traditionally been depicted, it was seized upon by a segment of the ‘Gamergate’ supporters as evidence of some ‘feminist’ campaign to ruin all their stuff. And once again threats of rape and violence were hurled upon a woman who had nothing to do with whatever social injustices they believed they were suffering.  It soon became so heated that the police were involved, and she has even had to cancel speaking arrangements, such as at Utah College where some appallingly death threats included mention of unleashing pipe bombs, pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and writing a ‘manifesto in her spilled blood':

‘This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.’

Anita Sarkeesian

IMAGE: Anita Sarkeesian

So I want to make this very clear: there is nothing wrong with a critic like Anita Sarkeesian writing whatever she likes about videogames.

Literally nothing.

That is what criticism is. You may disagree with her process, you may take issue with her conclusions, you may believe that there are flaws in her process, but she has every single right in the world – both as a human being with the luxury of free speech, and as a contributor to the breadth of critical analysis – to pursue whatever inquiry she likes.

That does not mean you have to accept her conclusions. That does not mean that she is impervious to interrogation or rebuttal.  (I personally took many issues with Roger Ebert’s perspective on the videogame medium.)  But declaring that such criticism has no right to exist, that the person who posed those questions should die or be terrorised until they shut up, is so antithetical to a healthy, evolving discourse, that it beggars belief.  And in the case of Sarkeesian, her Kickstarter was such a success that clearly there is an audience eager to hear her thoughts, so sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and yelling ‘I’m not listening!  You don’t exist!’ is extremely unhelpful.

A conversation doesn’t just end because one person has put a single point in print or made a video.  There’s no killscreen for debate.  And trying to troll people out of the argument is not a victory for anyone, it just condemns us all to stagnation.

If you take issue with Sarkeesian, then confront her theories, not the person herself. She may be right; she may be wrong.  But the only way to know is to raise those questions and cross-examine them head on.

***

To those in the community that have participated in the condemnation of Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, or who have tacitly perpetuated it by shrugging it off as no big deal:

Please stop.

I literally cannot believe I have to type this, but it is not okay to threaten anyone with violence if you disagree with them. Ever.  Under no circumstances is it okay to type the words ‘I hope you get raped or killed’, or publish someone’s address and contact information with the express purpose unleashing a campaign of harassment and hatred upon them.

Believe me, I know that not everyone in the ‘Gamergate’ community has done this, but some have, and they have done it in the name of the ‘Gamergate’ crusade. And allowing such behaviour, excusing it after the fact, or (as I have seen a disturbingly large contingent of people do) trying to downplay it by claiming that everyone gets threats on the internet, that Sarkeesian didn’t actually call the police, or that Zoe Quinn ‘deserved it’ because she wanted publicity or something, is just as contemptible.  A human being should not be threatened – in any way – because they have dared to express an opinion or publish a work of Art.

The thought that this could be how low public discourse has fallen for some people breaks my heart; and such behaviour should never be excused or tacitly allowed.

Gamergate threats excuse

IMAGE: Comment from Gamergate article by Jim Edwards at Business Insider

***

To any videogame journalists who have dismissed ‘Gamergate’ members as just a mob of entitled misogynists:

I know it’s tempting. Hell, I just listed a handful of disturbingly sexist, reactionary behaviour perpetrated in the name of ‘Gamergate’.  And I know that when the yelling gets loud it gets hard to tell who’s what – at a certain point the disparate voices seem so enraged that the cacophony drowns out all nuance and it becomes easy to just write the whole thing off as a petulant boy’s club tantrum.

Angry Gamer picture

IMAGE: That same damned picture that always gets used in articles like these…

But it’s wrong, and it’s not helpful.

‘Gamergate’ raised a myriad of issues. It is impossible to lock down any one agenda, and it is both a disservice and a mistake to try.  Sure, when ‘Gamergate’ started it was born out of a petty personal attack, and yes, the majority of the fallout seems to have reprehensibly fallen upon women in the industry, but that hashtag was also taken up by many people who genuinely wanted to call for more transparency in the games media.  (I’m going to put aside the anti-‘Social Justice Warrior’ crowd – I’ll speak to that momentarily.)

Because what many ‘Gamergate’ proponents wanted – after a whole seedy history of backroom dealings – was for reviewers and journalists to make it clear when they had financial or personal relationship with the subjects of their commentary. To be made aware of when they were reading critique, and when it was just an advertisement in disguise.  It’s no doubt why the whole movement gained such heat beyond just the lunatics threatening women’s lives.

And yet when some journalists responded to the protests they painted all ‘Gamergate’ members (indeed, some even went so far as to label all ‘gamers’) entitled misogynistic infants.  And that too is in no way helpful.

So games journalists: when you lump everyone who has a legitimate complaint about the industry into a reductive cliché you not only insult the entirety of your audience, you reduce all debate to the very petty name-calling you accuse your opponents of engaging in.  It blithely, and rather disingenuously excuses you from answering the more pressing questions that, amongst all the noise, lend ‘Gamegate’ substance.  And that appearance of obfuscation is precisely what those who have questions about the industry’s ethics do not need to hear.  Indeed, it merely adds fuel to the fire.

Because pretending that there is no relationship between games developers and press when any question about journalistic ethics are raised, but then blithely gloating that a developer told you something HUGE is gonna happen next week but you can’t say what, send, at best, mixed messages.  And when there is a history of shady business practices, when publishers regularly recruit from the games media, when non-disclosure agreements, publisher-paid junkets, and ‘integrated marketing’ are standard operation, it becomes utterly dishonest to ape confusion and offense that anyone could ever doubt the integrity of the industry.

Geoff Keighley Doritogate

IMAGE: ‘Dorito-gate’, because we need more words with ‘gate’ on them.

There’s a reason that the now infamous image of Geoff Keighley sitting beside a display stand of Doritos and Mountain Dew looking like his dog just died has weight. It has meaning, because it is symbolic of a road toward parroted product integration that the games industry risks sliding every day.  It doesn’t mean that you personally engage in those kinds of practices – thankfully there are many publications that make it clear when there is a conflict of interests or promotional consideration being paid – but pretending that it doesn’t and hasn’t happened at all, is knowingly hypocritical.

Similarly, there is a division between ‘gamers’ and ‘journalists’ – a not altogether healthy one.  To pretend that there isn’t – that ‘Hey, we’ve always just been gamers too, guys, we’re exactly like you’ – only exacerbates the problem.

Perhaps the clearest example of this divide (from my perspective, anyway) was in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 launch, when the industry largely rallied unquestioningly around Bioware, calling anyone who had any complaint about that game (whether it was about its buggy, unfinished state of release; it’s ethically repellent ending; its day-one DLC) merely a member of a spoiled, disgruntled ‘vocal minority’.  But it is a division that sadly recurs whenever games like SimCity or Diablo 3 or Battlefield 4 are released functionally broken, despite being lavished with great scores because the pre-release review copy worked swimmingly.  Or when an asinine fanatic like Colin Moriarty publishes some hypocritical Chicken Little diatribe attacking the mean audiences who don’t like his favourite games – because somehow (even though he gets his games for free and is paid to express his opinion) anyone else expressing their opinion in any way besides ‘voting with their wallet’ is going to totally ruin the industry forever! For real this time, you guys!!!

So please: please stop.  No more generalisations of ‘all gamers’.  No more feigned shock that anyone might not have absolute faith in the ‘journalistic’ process.

Yes, absolutely there are outrages with which to take issue, and for that you should be celebrated. Calling out the persecution of individuals, combating the spreading of misinformation, holding anyone to account who would engage in sexism, racism, or threats of violence – that is a profoundly worthy mandate.  But painting everyone who doesn’t have absolute faith in the industry with the same detrimental brush does far more damage than good.

***

To anyone who thinks there is a ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy:

You know what – who knows?

Again, I’m not part of the industry, so if there is some secret cabal where everyone gets together to eat kale chips and talk about using nouveau roman game design as a Trojan horse for social engineering, I’m not invited. But to be completely honest, I just don’t see it.  Not at all.  And I’ve really tried to understand where this perception is coming from.

It seems that when the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag started up, some saw it as an opportunity to voice their frustration at what they perceived to be a ‘liberal bias’ in the games media. The term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ was suddenly being directed at anyone (critic, designer, commentator) who, in their opinion, was trying to peddle a ‘liberal agenda': celebrating female empowerment, exploring the LGBT experience, exhibiting racial diversity.  Somehow, these ‘warriors’ were attempting to ruin the videogame medium by turning everything into a political statement; stripping out the ‘fun’ (or, rather, whatever the person complaining believes ‘fun‘ to be at any given moment) in exchange for a judgemental lecture.

But truthfully, I just don’t see any evidence for this kind of a conspiracy theory – neither in the writings of the accused critics, nor the supposed impact upon the production of games.

Social Justice Warrior

IMAGE: Social Justice Warrior t-shirt by Olly Moss

Firstly, rather than thinking that these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (the more I type that, the cooler it sounds, which is probably not what its critic intended) are proselytising some agenda, I think the answer is actually a lot simpler, and far more innocuous: I think they’re just excited.

To me, it’s not that shocking that reviewers – who probably spend ninety-five percent of their time stuck playing generic white male power fantasies in endless FPS and hack ‘n’ slash clones – might occasionally celebrate when a game comes along that explores an underrepresented human experience. Personally, I feel exactly the same – and I’m not the one stuck having to assign a score to Rambo: The Videogame.

When they see a game like The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther come along – something unpredictable, that shakes up their expectation or shows them something new – they get excited.  Not because the other stuff is all rubbish that should be destroyed, but because it reminds them that games can do many, many things – not just iterate upon the familiar, or perfect the ideal progression tree (neither of which am I suggesting are bad things).

Secondly, I really do not see how – even if there was some master plan behind it all – it has had any effect at all on the industry.  The most profitable and ubiquitous games being released every year continue to be things like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Street Fighter and Uncharted – games with countless sequels that can hardly be said to be plagued by moralistic handwringing, or a lack of unapologetic, bombastic fun.  With thousands of employees, multiple studios and a Smaug’s den of financing behind it, Assassin’s Creed: Unity couldn’t even be bothered to put a female character option in their co-op game because ‘reasons’.  So whatever clout these SJW’s are supposed to have, it seems pretty limited.

***

To anyone who thinks that indie games are part of a SJW agenda, and aren’t ‘real’ games anyway:

One of the weirdest results of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ backlash in the ‘Gamergate’ movement has been people taking it upon themselves to slag off small, niche titles like Gone Home and To The Moon – passion projects keen to use the malleability of their form in unique and experimental ways – for not being real games.  Despite the fact that they in no conceivable way damage the profit of the more mainstream, popular, and ‘real’ games, they are condemned as somehow threatening what ‘real gamers’ want.

Again, I’m sorry, but try as I might to comprehend that it I just genuinely don’t even understand the reasoning.

Gone-Home-2

IMAGE: Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)

There are always going to be big, explosive, fun games; someone downloading Braid is not going to stop that.  Just like there will always be thumping action films and raucous comedy films and slashy horror films filling the cinemas, no matter how many Richard Linklater experiments, Charlie Kaufmann mindbenders and Sophia Coppola character studies are released.  Michael Bay’s deplorable oeuvre is devoid of anything resembling humanity yet his films will go on earning the revenue of whole nations (gods help humanity), no matter how much praise a film like Her receives.

And I say this as someone who has grown up in a country that struggled (and still struggles) for many years to even catch up with the rest of the world in seeing games as adult entertainments: no one is going to take anyone’s videogames away.**** Big-budget shooters and fantasy games and fighters and sports franchises and action adventures are always going to be around.  Appreciating a work like Journey does not invalidate God of War.  The experiential mechanics of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons does not undo all the engagement and split-second precision to be mined from Devil May Cry.

Brothers a Tale of Two Sons

IMAGE: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios)

That would be like saying that once you’ve read The Waste Land you have to chuck every Charles Dickens book on the fire.  If you like 2001: A Space Odyssey then you must hate Star Wars and want it erased from history.  Whistling a Taylor Swift song means the Rolling Stones have to be rounded up and shot.  It’s totally illogical.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  One doesn’t have to belittle the other.  And even if someone does come along wanting to disparage one in favour of another, so what?  It’s opinion.  We don’t have to be so petrified of other people not liking the things that we like that everyone starts marking their territory, snarling, and savaging each another like rabid dogs.

Frankly, the idea of anyone complaining that they are being ‘persecuted’ because, somewhere, a game that they don’t have to play is being produced for people who aren’t them, is kind of ludicrous. If someone doesn’t like a game – either its mechanics or what it is saying – then they should just not play it.  Being so self involved as to actively try to prevent others from experiencing something that has nothing to do with them is a whole other level of narcissism that I cannot comprehend.

Indeed, when I think about it – if the people who believe such things had their way, games like A Dark Room, The Walking Dead (the good one), and Gone Home would not only have never been discussed, they would never have even been made. So to get selfish for a moment: How dare they try to take away experiences that I personally have found unique, enlightening and rewarding.  I am never in my life going to master a fighting game or dominate a multiplayer shooter, but I would never wish one of those games unmade.  Why would I want to deprive someone else of something they enjoy?

It’s a pretty sad hypocrisy that the only people actually actively endorsing censorship are the one’s complaining about ‘Social Justice Warriors’ trying to take away their freedoms.

***

To anyone using the ‘Gamergate’ hashtag:

Okay, so this one is going to be tricky to explain, but here goes.

‘Gamergate’ is filled with good people; great people. It simply has to be.  It’s too broad, and too far-reaching to just be some enclave of sexist, abusive crackpots, no matter how many articles get written describing them that way.

But I think you might need to stop using the name.

I’m not saying stop demanding more journalistic integrity and transparency from the games media and publishers. If that is what you signed up to ‘Gamergate’ for, then I am right with you and couldn’t agree more.  But the truth is, that’s no longer what the name ‘Gamergate’ represents – if it ever did.

‘Gamergate’ is Hydra. Multi-headed.  Multiform.  It isn’t just about dude-bros saying sexist crap; just as it isn’t only about calling for full disclosure in reviews; or rooting out ‘Social Justice Warriors'; or preventing people from calling ‘narrative experiences’ like Gone Home ‘games’ – all of which, at various points, have been attributed to the movement by its diverse supporters.

And that’s a problem.

Earlier, I called ‘Gamergate’ a Rorschach test, but given its history, really, there’s a better analogy. Because when you peel back the layers, there are too many different agendas, too many different visions for it to all cohere into a oneness.  It’s more like the turducken of enraged twitter trends: a petty personal character assassination, wrapped in a call for journalistic ethics, jammed inside a territorial gender war, and seasoned with a reactionary screed against ‘Social Justice Warriors’.  There is some good stuff in there – some great stuff – but it’s too overloaded by all the other confusion to cohere.

It’s why good, well intentioned people have gotten caught up in the mudslinging, because there is a layer of truth in what is being said.  It’s also why some games journalists have made the mistake of lumping all ‘gamers’ into one catch-all category, seemingly writing off the whole audience of videogames because a movement such as this was allowed to get any traction at all.  On the macro scale, both sides are right – partially.  But it’s also why both sides are wrong.

And I do believe that there is value in what many of the people applauding this movement are asking for. There is a genuine discussion to be had here.  Real questions to be answered.  Real expectations of full-disclosure to demand.  When a reviewer has a personal relationship with the developers, that should be divulged.  When a critic has not done due diligence in their analysis, that should be questioned.  When a developer or publisher is funnelling wads of cash into intentionally misleading promotional consideration, that should absolutely be called to account.

But I don’t think ‘Gamergate’ can forward that message. ‘Gamergate already comes pre-packaged with too much vindictiveness and fear.  In the end it has become something else entirely.

chainsawsuit 20141015-theperfectcrime

IMAGE: chainsawsuit comic

Because when you’re calling for integrity, but have to first explain away the fact that your movement started with a guy trying to slander his ex girlfriend as an unfaithful slut – that’s a problem. When multiple people are running crusades of terror, using character assassination, literal threats of assassination and jokes about rape in your name, then it is hard to argue that some critic excited about an interactive novel has ‘gone too far’.  And when you are talking about not having your personal ‘freedoms’ impinged, it loses some impact when several writers and artists have been terrorised out of their jobs (and in some cases homes) because they tried to express themselves.

Again, it’s not about saying that everyone in ‘Gamergate’ is guilty of everyone else’s crimes, it’s just a reality. ‘Gamergate’ began, and continues to be co-opted by people more interested in silencing and frightening women out of the industry, so using the name, even to forward a more virtuous argument, means having to accept or excuse some reprehensible behaviour, ultimately undermining the entire message.

Personally, I’d suggest it’s much better to regroup and retitle. To gather around a new name that need never be muddied by anyone using terror to shut down debate, or becoming distracted with weird anti-women agendas.  Apparently at one point some people did try to set up another hashtag – ‘gamersethics’ – but it was prevented  from catching on because others thought it was better to keep the original title running, even in spite of its problematic history.  That’s  a shame, because I think it might have done far more good than the mixed, and at times outright terrifying messages coming from those signing their movement ‘Gamergate’.

***

To anyone and everyone:

Games are better than this.

They are bigger and more wonderful than all of this pitiful crap. They can be Fez and Battlefield and Mario Cart and Papers Please and Civilisation and Pac-Man and Chrono Trigger and Assassin’s Criminywe’vemadealotofthesenow and Cookie Clicker and Skyrim.  They can be Barbie’s Damned Horse Adventures (note: this was my harried mistyping; the horses, as I understand it, are not actually demonic).

They can be – and I mean this in the most hyperbolically romantic way possible – everything.

They have allowed us to imagine walking on distant planets; to craft gargantuan, elaborate structures fashioned entirely from scavenged resources; to build communities in fantastical worlds; to solve mysteries; to see through the eyes of an abused, frightened child trying to literally escape a magical realist vision of their village; to bend our brains inside three dimensional, spatial physics puzzles; to give up our plumber jobs, eat mushrooms, and wear a kinky raccoon suit in public. They offer the chance to test ourselves, to grow beyond our limitations by learning new skills, by inhabiting other lands, by empathising with other characters, and adopting new ways of thinking.

Skyrim Landscape

IMAGE: Skyrim (Bethesda)

But any time someone types the words ‘Well, Depression Quest is not a real game anyway’ or ‘You don’t have the right to talk because you’re just a casual gamer’ or ‘All gamers are just violent spoiled children’ or threatens someone – anyone – for simply expressing themselves or having an opinion, it reduces the whole medium.  All of it.  It makes games smaller.  Shallower.  Less able to reflect the grand miasma of human experience that, so far, they have been inexorably reaching toward.  You may as well anchor a boat off the Galapagos Islands and shout at the finches to quit evolving.

Because, like I said, videogames are bigger than this. They have to be bigger than this.  We’re long past the days in which figures like Jack Thompson were trying to strangle the medium through legislation and censorship down into the kiddie-pool of art.  They have eclipsed most every other entertainment industry in profit and cultural saturation.  When a Grand Theft Auto game premieres it is a phenomenon.  When a new Legend of Zelda appears we get a twang of nostalgia that can only arise from an Art form that transcends generations.

We all – all of us – have to grow up. Game publishers and journalists have to stop patronising their audiences like ignorant children and treat them with respect.  Players have to accept that part of legitimacy of their medium is allowing people with differing views to express themselves artistically, and to speak their minds critically.  Whoever put that scarf on Sonic the Hedgehog needs to check themself.

Videogames are not the first to go through these kinds of growing pains. Those people in Stravinsky’s audience were afraid of change.  They reacted furiously because they feared what they personally didn’t understand.  The people who coopted the Macbeth riots didn’t care.  They welcomed the carnage, believing it could serve their biased world view and rationalised away whoever got chewed up in the fallout.  But Stravinsky’s audience are now the butt of a joke; the Macbeth rioters are viewed as dangerous bigots.  The medium of videogames has legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that those who would leap violently to its ‘defence’ do also.

‘Gamergate’, in a completely different circumstance, could have been – should have been – a force for positive change.  Perhaps once the fire dies down, once the sexism and murder threats recede and legitimate concerns can be heard above the din, perhaps then a healthy conversation can take place – the conversation that should have occurred the first time around.

After all, the beauty of games is that if you screw up, if it all goes wrong, you can start over again. Reload and do better next time.

journey

IMAGE: Journey (thatgamecompany)

That probably means little to people like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice (and oh look, even as I have been typing these words another developer, Brianna Wu has just been threatened with rape and death and had her home address published online by her attacker. How nice).  But those women, and all the other so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ got into the games industry in the first place because they believed that it was capable of more, that it was expanding and saying more each and every day.

And if games, as I believe, are natural extensions of the way that we human beings interact with our world – if play and exploration and challenging ourselves is the way that we grow as a species – then thankfully, women, cultural diversity, criticism, experimentation and adaptation aren’t going anywhere. They and their influence will just grow exponentially as we see more and more of ourselves – the better parts of ourselves – in the Art that we create.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outlived everyone who stomped their feet and wanted to drawn it out with their howling.  It persevered and it inspired, going on to indelibly impact the course of all music – of all Art – to this day.  That doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it, it in no way means that it is beyond criticism, but it has a right to exist, and with the acknowledgement of that simple truth, the discussion of its merits or otherwise can go on with respect.

***

To anyone who read this far:

No matter what you think of what I said: genuinely, I thank you. That was a long post (frankly too long), and it was a fairly disheartening one to write.  So you, like I, probably need a good lie down.

Thanks for seeing it to the end.

***

P.S. – To Adam Baldwin:

Come on, man. I love you.  I love your work.

Getting all panicked about women in the videogame industry? Belittling threats and acts of sexual harassment?  Pondering whether Obama secretly wants Ebola to sweep through the nation?

Adam Baldwin Ebola tweet

That’s bananas. You must know that’s bananas.

Please tell me Simon just drugged you with something. That things were just getting a little …bendy.  That for a moment you just went a little crazy and then fell asleep.

***

Sonic_Boom_Trailer_Sonic

IMAGE: A spinal injury waiting to happen

* As you can probably tell, I’m just building up to a gag, but I wanted to make it clear: I’m aware that this is completely untrue – no one cares what I think.

** No really: it does.  Because nothing says ‘breakneck speed’ like literally strangling yourself when your neckwear gets snagged on a tree branch at 90 miles an hour.  Also: he’s naked, but the neck is somehow his primary concern?  He’s leaving the house in the morning and his mental checklist is: ‘Keys?  Check.  Gloves?  Check.  Scarfy scarf scarf?  Checky check check.  Pants – so that I don’t get arrested again…?  Oh no!  Am I running late?  Better hold that thought and get going…’

*** Meanwhile, EA used the release of The Sims 4 to declare a bold new business model: slicing the base game apart to distribute later as paid content, like some deranged kidnapper sending a pinkie toe in the mail.

**** For decades Australia belligerently used a flawed ratings system to treat videogames like a toxic spore. Critics of the medium would spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that videogames were for children, thus anything with adult themes and content was inappropriate.  Not ‘needed to be properly rated for adult audiences’, just banned and censored outright.  They ignored consumer demographics, countless petitions, and the entire rest of the world, and even after they were dragged kicking and screaming through one of the most farcical and protracted bureaucratic processes ever devised to introducing an R18 rating, we still have games like South Park: The Stick of Truth forcibly edited before release, protecting us, apparently from ourselves, and our ability to make our own decisions about the entertainment we consume.  Joy.

Moore Nitpicking: The Killing Joke

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by drayfish

batgirl new costume pic

IMAGE: Batgirl’s New Costume (DC)

Last month I wrote an article on Batgirl (published over at PopMatters). Inspired by her new costume redesign, it was really just an excuse to talk about how fantastic the character of Batgirl is, despite being too often overlooked as just an extension of the Batman franchise.

As an opinion column I guess it was serviceable – if a little shambolic. To use a truly tortured analogy, it was meant to be much like the new outfit itself: all concise and sleek lines. Clean. Clear. Snappy. I was going to bring up the outfit; use it to talk a bit about why Batgirl is profoundly cooler than she’s traditionally been given credit for; try to resist the urge to make snotty comments about Aquaman; sign out. Bip bop boom.

Instead (as so frequently seems to occur with my work) it became rather more rambling. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just took a few indulgent meanders. To continue stomping the outfit metaphor to death, I mentioned the character of Spawn in there at one point (I held back on the Aquaman, so he got a blast), and the further I got along, the more it felt like what I was actually writing was a version of his ensemble: all extraneous cape, superfluous chains, and over-stylised logos all over the place.*

And ARGH! Lookit! I’m doing it all over again! Apparently I can’t help my little self.

In any case, the point is that there was a section I cut out of that piece that I wanted to quickly discuss here. During the article I reference one of DC’s most famous graphic novels, The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, a near-universally beloved work that has had an indelible impact upon all subsequent depictions of the Batman mythos, and the character of the Joker in particular.

Except… I’m not its biggest fan.

I don’t think it’s bad, or anything. I can absolutely see why it retains such special place in people’s hearts. But there are elements of that book that do bother me, that ultimately get in the way of me considering it one of the great Batman tales. And yet for some reason it keeps drawing me back, keeps asking me to reconsider it as something more.

As I explain in the article, foremost amongst my issues with the comic, is the problematic way in which it treats its female characters. The Batgirl character in particular is completely marginalised, turned into a victim to be savaged, thereby ‘motivating’ the real heroes of the story: her father Commissioner Gordon, and her vigilante ‘father’ Batman.

For fairly obvious reasons, I’m not a huge fan of how that narrative mechanic takes a strong, proud, capable and autonomous character like Barbara Gordon, and reduces her to a casualty – particularly so as she’s not even punished for being Batgirl, but rather just Jim Gordon’s daughter. From serving her father tea and complaining that he’s getting his laundry dirty, she’s paralysed, stripped naked and photographed; literally turned into a gruesome art-object to titillate the Joker, torment Gordon, and (although the Joker doesn’t realise it) enrage the Batman.

And when you dig further into the tale, she is not even the only woman cynically discarded to further the plot progression for its principle male cast. In flashback, the Joker is shown to have had a wife and unborn child. It is presumably for them that he gets involved with some mobsters who want him to help them break into a chemical factory, to ‘prove [himself] as a husband … and as a father’. However, both Joker’s wife and child die, unseen (an electrical fault in a baby bottle heater), only to be reported dead after the fact. They become just plot beats used to legitimise the fracturing of his psyche – even though, weirdly, this new widower’s response isn’t shown to be much more than, ‘Well, I don’t need to pull that heist anymore, guys…’ In an uncomfortable way, it almost feels like, in death, the narrative is blaming his wife even more for his circumstance, since he was only apparently turning to crime to support her.

That might well sound like petty nitpicking – he is the proto-Joker, after all. Human empathy may have never been one of the principle features of his personality. And it’s also true that if indeed this is indeed all meant to come across as psychologically devastating, I would prefer quiet understatement to him throwing his head back in a William Shatner-style roar to the heavens. But it does consequentially undercut exactly how far he ‘falls’ from grace if you are trying to read his narrative arc as a tragedy. If this is a guy who can slough off the decimation of his entire family with little response (only later that day while going through with the robbery anyway, albeit against his will, he remarks how surprising it is that he should still be remembering his wife) then it is difficult to empathise with him or feel much pity. It’s only after he takes a bath in a toxic soup and he is personally, physically effected that his psyche seems to snap, which risks making him seem all the more selfish, and his family all the more redundant.

Of course, the other, far more interesting interpretation (the one that I prefer to believe) is that none of this is true anyway. This curiously emotionally subdued back story of lost love and a reluctant descent into crime is just a fantasy that the Joker himself has made up, one of the many lies that he has told himself to graft some semblance of self onto the twisted, irrational void of his personality. It would explaining why the wife and child are so peripheral and disposable; they are just ciphers in his playacting. ‘Jeannie and Junior’, names so rote and alliterative that they really are just (imaginary) baby steps away from the real, unwavering focus of his egotism: Joker. We don’t see or feel their deaths because they are just manufactured excuses for his behaviour. And we wouldn’t want them drawing focus away from the real star: the guy wandering around in the bright costume and permanent stage-smile.

But if that is true, if Joker’s ambivalence is a sign of his blind selfishness, then it makes the treatment of Barbara even more important. And sadly, she too is dismissed when its plot convenient. In the present, real world of the story, when Batman arrives on the scene to save the day, Jim Gordon doesn’t even ask about his daughter – who as far as he knows might well be dead. At that moment, as far as Jim knows, his daughter has been shot through the gut, brutalised by sociopaths, and left to bleed out on their carpet.** Literally the last time he saw her she was naked, surrounded by a gang of lunatics, and screaming in pain. And yet as Batman swoops in, his first line is not ‘Barbara?’ (indeed, we never see him ask that); instead he’s preoccupied with warning Batman not to step over the line, insisting, ‘I want him brought in by the book’. Although trying to tamp down his shock, his primary concern is that Batman not lose his composure, do something crazy and prove the Joker’s crazed pessimism right.

Now, that may just be some heretofore undiscovered Jim Gordon superpower – Mega-Stoicism? Emotion-dampening? Hyper-suppression? – but for a human being, the whole ‘Don’t let the Joker win this moral debate’ would probably take a momentary backseat to, ‘Hey, is my daughter – you know – alive?’ Particularly so if this final confrontation, as Gordon’s dialogue suggests, is about disproving the Joker’s dispassionate narcissism.

The response to much of this criticism will be, of course, that this is ultimately not a story about these women. Barbara, Joker’s wife, the ‘Fat Lady’ who recurs throughout as a background gag (a poster featuring her at one point even reads ‘Gals, Be Glad It Ain’t You’ – which for all the women in this narrative seems profoundly true); they are all, by necessity, subservient to the psychodrama being played out amongst the three leads. But again, if the point of the story is to draw a distinction between the Joker and Jim (if not the Joker and the Bat), then having them both seen to be forgetting their loved ones in pursuit of some ethos seems an odd, counterintuitive choice.

But, again, I freely admit: I’m being fussy. It’s a powerful story, even if it has to sideline or undermine characters I love in service to its end.

And speaking of that ending, I guess before I go I probably should offer my opinion of the issue of its contrary interpretations. Because in recent years, whenever the subject of The Killing Joke arises, the inevitable question of what exactly is happening on that final page rears its head.

The debate, largely fuelled, as far as I can tell, by writer Grant Morrison, is that the traditional reading of the story – that Batman catches the Joker, restrains himself from enacting revenge as Gordon implored him, and then the two of them, Clown and Crusader, share a morbid laugh over a deranged joke that the Joker decides to recount – is wrong.

The Killing Joke end

IMAGE: The Killing Joke (last page) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)

Morrison believes that this is a misunderstanding of the ambiguity Moore intentionally left in his story. For him, and for those who share his reading, when the comic panels tilt focus down to the glistening puddles in the street, Batman actually does finally snap and strangles the Joker to death, ending their perpetual war in a ghoulish failure.

To be fair, the pun title of the book can be seen to lean toward this interpretation. The Killing Joke – not just a joke that cracks up its audience, but a joke that kills, that finally sends Batman over the edge.

But I just don’t see it.

Firstly, more than anything else, it would just seem like lazy plotting in service of a cheap shock tactic; after all, Batman spends the latter portion of the book rubbing it in the Joker’s face that he didn’t win, that the Joker is the only broken savage in the story despite inflicting the worst that he could on others. To then arbitrarily change his mind and kill him anyway not only undermines the agony of that stoicism and proves the Joker right, it seems weirdly antithetical. The reason that grim denouement exists is because they’ve both already lost. The Joker failed to drag anyone else down to his level; the Batman realises that he’s never going to be able to pull his enemy out of this inevitable death spiral; so faced with the inescapability of their intractable, unchangeable path toward ruin, they share a laugh – a joke about two other lunatics trying to escape, but too lost to madness to help themselves. Killing him after they both came to that realisation would not only be cheap, it would actually make the opposite, less tragic point.

Obviously the focus shifts away from the action and the noise fades out, but that just seems more about Moore trying to evoke that sense of cyclical quietude than an implication of murder. The reason that the panels tilt down, returning us to that very same image of the light reflected in the rain puddle, the image with which this whole story begins, is because is it, ultimately, about these two lunatics in their irresolvable cycle. It becomes a narrative ouroboros, starting all over again – Batman and Joker, trapped together forever. The people around them continue to get chewed up, but the heroism and tragedy of their circumstance likewise continues to fuel more stories. Neither of them can change, but neither will stop trying to change the other either.

It’s no doubt why I keep coming back to this tale myself, despite my reservations. Because there really is a marvellous magnetism to these two characters that is perhaps best encapsulated in this gloomy vignette. It’s just a shame that an arguably even more interesting character had to be sacrificed in order to render that portrait in its most potent form.

Batman and Joker laughing

IMAGE: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)

* And even then I left out a cranky old man rant about how the youngins today don’t know what it was like before comic book films were legitimised. What with their Captain America: Winter Soldiers and Guardians of the Galaxies… They never had to live through the nightmare of Steel or the artery-clogging cheese of Superman 4: The Quest for Peace or f**king Batman and F**king Robin. And don’t even make me bring up Howard the Duck! That’s a whole other parcel of emotional horror I dare not unpack. …Although I guess they did have to contend with Green Lantern and X Men Origins: Wolverine, so maybe we have all seen some soul withering stuff.

** More specifically, he actually shoots her in the pelvis, which opens up a whole other potentially loaded assault on gender riff that I shall leave unexplored.

24 Lives: Another Day Another Dolour

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by drayfish

24-Live-Another-Day-TV-Show-Images

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

It seems like every other day there’s a story in the news – always with some hyperbolic headline – about either the wonders or the dangers of wine.

One week a ‘recent study’ will say that it’s bad for you: acid reflux, heart disease, liver damage.  The next week it will be all good: it’ll help your cholesterol, your circulation, your brain function.  Sometimes it robs years off your life, others it extends your sunset days exponentially.  It stains your teeth; or it gives you better skin.  It raises you risk of stroke; it stops you getting fat.  It gives you cancer; it stops cancer.  It gives you unicorns; it gives your unicorns cancer.  Back and forth, on and on, each time backed by some half baked clinical trial and a photogenic white coat technician from the University of Overzealous Press Releases (Go UOPRs!)

They do it with coffee too.  And beer.  Sun-tanning.  Videogames.  Always some pleasure that rational thought would dictate is probably fine in moderation, but that would be a mistake to overindulge.  But it’s all part of the dance.  That fluctuation that has always been at the heart of headline journalism between ‘Hey, psst… Wanna know the ultimate secret?’ and ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!’

I bring this up because I just watched the last episode of 24.

More specifically: the finale of the latest season of 24: ‘Live Another Day’.  The series had returned from cancellation* in a truncated form (12 episodes instead of the eponymous 24), picking up the story four years after the previous season’s whimper of an ending.

And while 24 is hardly an addictive chemical substance (even if that ticking clock does trigger some kind of Pavlovian response in my brain chemistry), whenever I watch the show it reminds me of all those news reports – the way they vacillate so wildly with such predictability.  Not just because 24 itself frequently becomes the subject matter of such debates in its often cavalier depiction of torture and insensitive portrayals of other cultures.  It’s because that flip-flopping is precisely the way that I personally feel about the show; those are the wild swings of emotion and sniping voices in my head as I watch each season play out.  One week it’s ‘the greatest thing evah!’ the next it’s ‘the worst crap I’ve ever seen!’, and I can never resolve whether I think it’s a text that’s ultimately transformative or utter trash.**

But as this latest, more condensed miniseries has shown: it’s like wine.  It’s both.  And neither.

It all depends upon your taste, and what you’re using it for.

24 publicity shot

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

I remember watching the first season of 24 back in 2002.  At the time I was so enamoured with the conceit that not only could I forgive the necessary extra suspension of disbelief – the portals in spacetime Jack had to exploit to navigate LA in the time allotted him; the fact no one ever grabbed a sandwich on the fly, napped, or had a functioning bladder – I flew headlong into the adventure with rollicking abandon.

Hey, lookit!  The split screens!  The multiple angles!  The that-guy-said-it-would-take-five-minutes-and-then-it-took-five-minutes!  The ticking clocks that actually real-time clock ticked!  There was Dennis Hopper doing the crazy eyes.  There were ‘splosions – sometimes just ’cause why not?  There were outrageous, status quo shattering twists (how could Nina be the traitor?  She’s one of the cast members?!)  And there was the final, sombre sting in the tail: the needless death of Jack’s wife, just to disabuse the audience of the notion that this was all just some big, swaggering hero fantasy.

Yes, it sucks that in some ways Teri Bauer’s death could be seen as a variation on the woman-in-the-freezer trope (a sorry well that the writers would pathetically revisit again with the character of Renee Walker), but here it didn’t seem to have been done to motivate the ‘hero’, or even to further the story.  It was a sign that in this world, no one was safe.  Good people – resourceful, useful, loved people – could die; because in this narrative’s universes there are unforeseeable consequences for those who strive to do good.

It was exciting.  And it felt fresh.  It was willing to do slow burns and frenetic mayhem.  And in a network television landscape of formulaic action fare, it was like a revelation.

Then season two happened, and after starting strong – chasing a nuke through the city streets?! Yikes! – the formula that the show had traded up for started to bite into the narrative.  From that season on stories suddenly began chasing themselves into redundant side alleys just to fill up screen time: double crosses and secondary villains, agents with personal problems and loser friends/family members/ex-boyfriends that would re-enter their lives to inject predictably tedious complications into stories that already contained the potential end of western civilisation.

I know she’s become a bit of a punching bag in criticism of the show, but perhaps the worst casualty of these treading water plotlines was Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer.  In her several years of involvement it is difficult to identify a single moment in which she profitably forwarded the narrative.  During season two in particular she became like a walking farcical game of ‘good news, bad news':

Good news!  She escaped the child abusing guy she was babysitting for.  Bad news!  She’s caught in a bear trap…

Good news!  Did we mention she’s caught in a bear trap so she’s not going anywhere?  Bad news!  Now there’s a hungry cougar lurking over her shoulder…

Good news!  She gets saved by a loner weirdo in the middle of nowhere.  Bad news!  He’s a survivalist nut job who’s going to lock her in his dungeon…

On and on and on.  Poor Elisha Cuthbert having to work overtime to sell the audience on her plight as she’s tasked with staring into the middle distance at unconvincingly mountain cat stock footage or reacting to cheap soap-opera peril.  She got some marginally better material in her later seasons when she joined CTU (she joined CTU!), and yet it still seemed she was relegated to the role of most-hapless-intern, with corny ‘Don’t tell dad his partner is my boyfriend’ nonsense she had to sell.

Similarly, as the series continued, the shock value and theatrics overall were ramped up.  Perhaps chasing the visceral jolt of the death of Jack’s wife, or the nuke blast mid season two, the show just kept piling on the carnage, dialling up the threat.

It made for compelling viewing.  At any given moment, any of the characters could be sacrificed.  Just because you had a familiar face on 24 was no guarantee you were going to make it through the next commercial break (unless you were Kiefer Sutherland, naturally).  One year, just to get things rolling at frantic pace, three of the principle characters were assassinated within the first hour.***  In another season starter a nuclear detonation went off in Los Angeles.  And those were the opening salvos.  From that point on it felt that the story could go literally anywhere.

24 was white-knuckle stuff; rambunctious and rollickingly paced.  It might meander down ultimately extraneous narrative back alleys, but there was always the sense that things could kick off at any moment.  Anyone was expendable (and almost without exception, they proved to be); everything was wired to explode.

24 nuclear explosion

IMAGE: Quietly raising the stakes, 24 (Fox)

But it became cartoonish.  Only a couple of years in and Bauer had literally died and been brought back to life multiple times.  Multiple.  More than one.

It became a show where oil barons try to blow up Los Angeles (a city with no public transport system) to convince people to buy more oil.  Where Jack’s father and brother are revealed to be villains, supplying nerve gas to Russian terrorists, because… something about ‘legacy’?  Where the central conceit of an entire season (which I enjoyed, but that everyone else seems to have panned) was a previously assassinated character coming back from the dead (with an evil-Spock beard so that you know he’s not to be trusted).  Even at what is widely considered its best, it was still barking nuts: the season that won the Emmy revolved around the President of the United States being a scheming, murderous, moustache-twirling tyrant!  The President of the United States!

…I mean, I know the obvious gag to make is ‘Nixon’, but come on.  That’s a big card to play.

On a smaller scale, it was a kind of mugging for the camera that even seeped into the production – my gods, the product placement!  When Ford was sponsoring, you knew which vehicles Jack was going to go out of his way to hotwire (which, now that I think about it, is kind of a strange feature to advertise: ‘Look at how quickly someone can steal your car!’)  Dell computers get to show you how accessible all of the country’s electronic infrastructure truly is.  This latest season, when they switched on a Sprint mobile phone (in close up of the logo) uplinking directly with the president (who, wouldn’t you know it, is also on a Sprint plan!) to find him flashing a toothy smile and declaring, ‘You’re coming through loud and clear, Jack’, I thought perhaps I had entered into some weird Home Shopping Network co-production:

‘This is great coverage, Chloe.  And at such an affordable price!  I wonder what those terrorists are using?’

‘Probably AT&T – the freedom-hating bastards.’

The show’s only restriction was to its central time conceit – but in a striking irony, it was this concession to ‘reality’ that led it so astray.

24 had trapped itself in a rigid order – 24 hours, chronological, unbroken.  And to begin with it wore this convention as a guiding principle: this is what will evoke tension, this will give immediacy and weight to the premise.  And it did.  The only thing is – like a moral code – when you lose sight of why those rules are in place, why they are necessary, they can feel too much like a chafing restraint, like some shackle arbitrarily applied.  And that’s what happened.  Whenever 24 lost sight of the purpose of those rules, it reacted to them by piling on the gore, by ramping up the peril until it reached an hysterical pitch.

For a show thematically obsessed with how poised upon the precipice of ruin the western world perpetually stands, constantly flirting with how easily anarchy can overtake order, it is fitting that their narrative seems to play out in precisely the same way.  Locked into the restrictive real-time conceit, with multiple characters to juggle and impending deadlines unavoidably ticking down, it became clear that the writers really were just making it up on the fly, desperately trying to lay down the next piece of track before the oncoming train rolled over it – a fact they later confirmed.

Presumably there were broad arcs mapped out – characters earmarked as moles; revelations to spring – but for the most part, week to week, it was a giddy, long-form improv.  There were minutes to fill, corners they wrote themselves into and from which they had to claw their way free.

And what they proved was: it’s impossible to live like that, to tell stories like that, without making mistakes.

When it works it has a thrilling immediacy; but when it doesn’t, when you let your resolve slip, it swiftly descends into nonsense.  A character will get a convenient micro-amnesia; a President can be poisoned with no lasting consequence; a nuclear bomb can detonate in Los Angeles (a nuke!) and then after literally only a couple of hours never be mentioned again.  It becomes a gruesome pantomime – skittish and flailing, illogical and desperate – where nothing matters anymore because all sense of substance and consequence is gone.

It becomes a meme about a bear trap and a cougar.

And it’s here that we have to mention the torture porn. Because it’s hard to not be revolted by the sometimes fetishistic way in which 24 presented the act of torture.  Not merely because it was so willing to show some quite graphic material, but because it would so frequently go there, and with so little nuance.  It became the last great hope of plot progression: We need this guy to talk and he won’t.  It’s regrettable, and we’ll show characters looking remorsefully out a window as though mourning the death of innocence – but don’t worry, because it always works, it’s reliable, and Bauer is the maestro of pain.  I’m glad that they took occasion in the last few seasons to inject a little more nuance to the presentation of torture – it didn’t always work, and can be inflicted on the innocent, but it did always seem to remain a lazy plot standby whenever the writers ran out of ideas.

24 is meant to be a show about how vigilant one must be – how stoic – to maintain order; and it’s narrative through line and structure consistently proves this true, exhibiting, even in its failure, everything wrong with slippery slopes.  If you take your eye off the big picture, start chasing momentary indulgences, the whole thing can fall apart.  Let the nutso Jack’s-a-junkie storyline slide and suddenly you’re knee deep in a he’s-got-terminal-radiation-poisoning story that has to be solved with magic.  Let the torture get you the information one time, and soon your hero is a tweaked-out rage-monster, and the idea of personal liberties and the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is rendered meaningless.

It’s a highwire balancing act – one that the show could never consistently pull off.  And that’s why viewing it became such a war in my head.  Because – to return to an already laboured analogy – 24 ultimately feels like one big contradictory argument about wine.  Endlessly fluctuating between sublimity and slop.

One season it’s like all great spy and suspense fiction, offering a sobering portrait of our contemporary paranoias; the next, it shamelessly leaps into hapless shock tactics and bombastic theatrics.  One week it’s a portrait of the thin veneer of social order that is only held in check by clandestine, morally grey, watchdogs; the next it’s a flag-waving soap-opera with a cartoonish understanding of biology, physics, and basic human behaviour.

Compulsively watchable?  Of course.  But good for you?  It was impossible to say.

And so to ‘Live Another Day’ – a subtitle that at this point probably sounds like more of a threat than a statement of resolve.  Because for me, that was what made this season was so good: not only the fact that it’s half-episode order allowed the writers to streamline their seasonal arc, but because it owned its own history of histrionics.

Firstly, the story didn’t summersault into a series of endless nonsensical doublecrosses – the one inevitable CIA traitor was so obvious from his first appearance that you didn’t have to play the tired guessing game (Benjamin Bratt plays stalwart lead and sneaky scumbag so well that the moment he sagely warned Kate not to dwell on her husband’s betrayal it was clear he was the one who’d sold her out).  There was no Russian doll of escalatingly superfluous villains – or rather, the connections seemed a little more organic this time around.

Even when the show risked feeling like just a greatest hits package, each familiar set piece had an imaginative new twist.  Jack could still hotwire a car in under three seconds and schematics of every building on the face of the Earth were once again being called up out of the ether, but this time Jack and Chloe were on their own, having to negotiate wi-fi hotspots in local pubs and scamper through the London Underground.  The signature car chases were elevated by being stalked by drone cameras and missiles.  Even the torture interrogation scene was actually just a bluff with a nice misdirect; Jack wasn’t the unhinged ‘bad cop’ for once, as it was new agent Kate (played magnificently by Chuck alumna Yvonne Strahovski) got to flip out and wave her gun around.

Sadly, the series does revisit an unfortunate trope that it would be nice if it could grow beyond: the woman Jack Bauer loves has to get murdered.  While thankfully not as distasteful as season 8’s assassination of Renee Walker (literally moments after she and Jack had slept together, just so the ‘tragedy’ really sinks in), Audrey Raines is killed in the final episode during a failed rescue attempt.  Her death acts as a revealing catalyst both for Kate’s resignation, believing that she no longer has the dispassionate resolve necessary for the job, and for one of the most revealing moments of quiet and motionlessness in the entire span of the series.  Because while her death does ‘motivate’ Jack in a sense, what it actually does is expose just how unhinged he has become.  Hearing the news that Audrey – the woman he loved from a distance – is dead, Jack collapses.  He takes out a pistol, and for a lingering, static moment seriously contemplates just blowing his own head off.

And this, finally, was the best thing about the season: that it seemed as though the writers were finally prepared to deal with the creature they had created by sacrificing themselves to an eight-year slippery slope of narrative.  Here, in this condensed season we finally got the clearest portrait of the weathered, broken patriot, Jack Bauer.

And it wasn’t pretty.

24-live-another-day-finale

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

Because this Jack was terrifying at times.  And not in a ‘Yay!  Goku’s so mad he’s going Super Sayan!’ kind of way.  This Jack was deeply unsettling.  This Jack’s history genuinely seemed to weigh upon him, to twist him into a darker creature, which previous seasons had flirted with by using cheap gimmicks (he’s a drug addict now! his girlfriend died! he’s been tortured up good!) but never quite nailed down.

(Although it should be said that it’s a mark of how masterful and layered Kiefer Sutherland’s performance is that he was always able to stand at the centre of the show’s sometimes extremely silly frenzy and give it all a dignity and weight.)

In season one, Bauer was a fluffy-haired, true-believing patriot.  A loving husband and overprotective father trying to rebuild his marriage; a man who trusted his colleagues, had faith in his country, and believed in all the gooey clichés of liberty and freedom.  Over a decade later and that man is almost unrecognisable; scarred and beaten and brutalised.  He’s a pariah.  His family is lost, the country he gave his personal life to protect now labels him a traitor, and almost everyone he ever knew or cared for has died in service of a system that itself has become corrupted.

Whereas once he had personified a fantasy of cowboy righteousness the western world wanted to invest in after the shock of 9/11, now he reflects the cynicism that has overwhelmed today’s political discourse.  America is now a county known to spy on its own people.  It sends drones to bombard foreign countries.  It tortures its prisoners.  It demonises and threatens figures like Edward Snowden or PFC Bradley Manning, charging them with treason to frighten whistleblowers into silence.  ‘Live Another Day’ might eventually sully its Julian Assange-cypher by turning him into a cookie-cutter terrorist wack-job, but they never resolve the outrage that a character like he, and by extension Chloe, are reacting to.  Whether acting in the public interest or not, America has revealed itself to be a country whose rhetoric and actions do not align.

And so, when called back to service, Jack still responds, but this is not the same true believer.  He now embodies this wounded, self-loathing, and contradictory world-view.  After savagely interrogating a injured prisoner – the assassin daughter of a murderous zealot – he admits that part of him likes the torture.  The punishing of bad people.  He’s not doing it just for information, or to avert greater disasters; in part, he’s doing it for himself.  When he captures the principle antagonist Margot Al-Harazi (a woman who, despite being a mass-murdering psychotic, was seeking revenge for a US drone strike that massacred her entire family), rather than take her into custody he becomes her judge and executioner, kicking her out of a window to her death.  When he raises himself back up after hearing of Audrey’s death, when he focuses the rage and guilt that’s overwhelming him, he’s no avenging angel – he’s a maelstrom.  He wipes out an entire boat of people in an ugly, vicious rampage.  It’s not played as heroism – it’s slaughter.

In perhaps the most revealing moments of the series, when he is handing himself over to the Russians in the final scene, he seems to almost relish the thought of such punishments being inflicted upon him in rerturn.  For all the pain that his actions have wrought, for all his collateral damage, there is a peculiar note of penance as he is led off to his fate.  It’s quite a statement about Jack’s tainted moral compass that this is how he now sees himself.

He’s a monster.  And perhaps the only comforting thought is that he’s our monster.  At least for now.

At the end of the season, one of the most haunting notes was the sight of President Heller watching his daughter’s body being loaded onto Air Force One.  He notes that the one virtue of his encroaching Alzheimer’s disease is that eventually it will wipe the horror of his grief away as he forgets her death – as he forgets her altogether.  It’s a chilling pronouncement – but again, one that is tragically representative of this season’s larger themes.

For the first time it felt that 24 was remembering all of its past sins, using them to warn its viewers and itself of how easily incremental compromise can destroy an ideal.  24 hour narrative conceits are nice, but they have to be respected or they churn you up.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are grand, but if they are eroded away by surveillance states and ‘acceptable’ collateral damages and the persecution of the press then they lose all substance.  As Heller intones: forgetting your past, wiping away all that you’ve done and embracing a convenient lie might be comforting, but that just replaces reality with a hollow fantasy.  A meaningless nothingness.  Owning your actions, and the contradictions that they engender is the harder, but more consequential thing.  Because it is only by viewing the complexity of our own behaviour that any true discussion about the serious political issues facing contemporary culture can continue.

I still don’t know whether wine is good for you – I’m still not sure that 24 is a good show – but at their best I like them both a great deal.  And the way that they are spoken about and reacted to says far more about us as a culture than we are perhaps willing to admit.

24 cougar

IMAGE: ‘You want me to what?24 (Fox)

* Or from ‘resting’ or ‘hiatus’ or whatever euphemism networks use now when they cancel shows.

** All except seasons 6 and 8 – just personal opinion, but to me they were garbage front to back.

*** Okay, so only two of those people were successfully assassinated, one returns all Winter Soldiered up.  But you know what I mean.

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