Archive for the art Category

Beyond ‘Art’ and ‘Not-Art’: Art, Videogames, and Beyond Good and Evil

Posted in art, criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2017 by drayfish

In honour of the wondrous announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2 at this years E3 Conference, I thought I should repost this article of mine, originally published on PopMatters; a celebration of what might very well be my favourite game of all time…

Beyond Good and Evil

Stuck in a box

I am standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono.  Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape.  A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls.  The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.  For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I am having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I am actually revisiting Beyond Good and Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.

Indeed, it is a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew.  Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Journey, or Fez, or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I am struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.  I think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.

Beyond Good and Evil 3

‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’

Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert was not a fan of videogames.  As he himself proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers, however, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.*

Although one might look at such wilfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst (after all, film too had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy, Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache.  Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ in Pacific Standard.  He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC; Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert.  Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey To Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and by consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.

I must admit, it is a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar.  I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference.  Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film, his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.

However, while I do not want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so elsewhere), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, wilfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it is nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.  Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the wilfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good and Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.

Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature.  Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate.  He said:

‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature.  There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful.  But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.  To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.  That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept.  But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’

Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence.  ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure.  Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.**

Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed.  Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium.  He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.  Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him.***  One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths?  How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice?  How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?

Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past.  I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good and Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement.  After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue?  Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction?  Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance?  Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?  If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition?  Eventually such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals.  One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’

Thankfully, there is an answer to such speculative vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try).  Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.

Recently, examples such as The Last of Us, Journey, and Fez have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression.  And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…

Beyond-Good-Evil 2

The Hillys are alive

To begin with the somewhat superficial, it is doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond is a delight to the senses.  Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a  HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted.  Beyond offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes.  From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships.  Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.

But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression.  Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state.  A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.

Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda.  But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies.  To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe.  It is little wonder then that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.

Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war.  Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.

The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity.  The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.  Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist.  Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.

And it is in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good and Evil is most striking.  Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning.  This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.  As Jade, you will sneak.  You will explore.  You will gather clues.  You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly.  You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets.  You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.

The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action.  The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.

Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it.  And in doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’.  Indeed, it is for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.

Beyond Good and Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility.  Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war.  It is about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.  Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed.  By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.

It is no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark.  And there is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged.  As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.

Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about.  A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.

And at precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.  It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind.  A tune stripped utterly bare.  Just solo finger stickling across ivory.  A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls.

It is a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.

By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith.  The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.

And so, for a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired.  Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life.  During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.  Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely.  Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.

This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player.  Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.

In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.

beyond-good-and-evil-2

Treading Water

Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.

Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass.  And in that sense he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores.  Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives.  Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.

In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place.  No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs.  Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.

Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints.  Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.

Beyond Good and Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself.  By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself.

Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.

In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).

Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good and Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth.  Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.

Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets?  No, of course not.  But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with.  The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit.  Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.  Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail.  It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified.  But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.

If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say.  And as Beyond Good and Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.

They too reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired contrarian routine.  The circle their definition of Art in a infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitation as they deny it the capacity to evolve.  As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is.  I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try.  And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure.  I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it, one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.

I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art.  He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish.  But in truth that’s what all Art has always been.  Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us.  We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.  Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code?  It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

Beyond_Good_&_Evil_Ming-Tzu

*   *   *   *   *

* One can read Ebert’s dismissal of the medium, in response to game designer Kellee Santiago’s rousing TED, talk here.

** Something that the Big Momma trilogy and Transformers 2 can do, apparently.

*** Elsewhere, in his final, rather patronising opinion piece on this matter, titled ‘Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn’, Ebert does use the example (repurposed from a debate with Clive Barker) of Romeo and Juliet.  In a game, he argues, the story would be rewritten so that the lovers might both live in the end, thereby destroying the whole tragic trajectory of the narrative.  But this too is a completely disingenuous argument.  Nowhere does the notion of videogame ‘interactivity’ dictate that all things must be possible at all times to everyone.  Multiple forking paths of narrative are a possibility of a certain form of videogame; not the requirement for every text.  Ebert’s position would be like arguing that because Pulp Fiction and Memento utilise non-linear storytelling, every other movie obviously must do the same – cinema is incapable of following a character’s life chronologically from birth to death.

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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.

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

Whats sizzling in the pan 1

IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?!’: A Look Back At The Year of the ‘Selfie’

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by drayfish

[Firstly, this is a big one, and it sprawls pretty quick.  You might want to bring a snack and call your loved ones before taking it on.  It is also overflowing with spoilers.  I shall try not to spoil anything in the first few words of any paragraph, so if you can be bothered to read on, just skip past whatever texts you don’t want to see mangled through the lens of my wholly subjective nitpicking.]

tearaway selfie

IMAGE: A Tearaway Selfie (Media Molecule)

Phase the First: Wherein I Try To Get All Self-Reflexive And Fail

It’s always foolish to try to sum up an entire year as being ‘about’ one thing.

People do it all the time, of course.  Articles get written.  Cheesy montages get rolled out in news broadcasts.  YouTube even compiled a ‘What Did 2013 Say’ clip (presumably alongside its weekly ‘Most viewed cats falling into sinks’ list).  Whenever an untrammelled January rolls around everybody gets lost in a wave of nostalgia that invariably leads to a lot of tortured attempts to squeeze the newly concluded year into a neatly digestible oneness.  Usually this is achieved by referencing some pithy term or title that’s seen to capture the whole.  The preceding twelve months are suddenly labelled the year of the ‘Twerk’, or the year of the ‘hashtag’, or the year of ‘the Doctor’ (I want to go on record as saying that last one is completely legitimate)*, and once this revisionist summary is offered, everyone nods, files the year away, and prepares to watch the whole cycle unfold again.

Yes, it can too often be merely cheap pabulum used to fill up slow news days as the holidays descend, or the arrogance of a commentator presumptive enough to try and force their subjective experience of the world down the throat of their audience, but it remains the product a larger imaginative exercise at the heart of our communal experience.

See, we humans like to categorise, to segment.  We make lists, we put things in conceptual boxes.  It’s why we have terms like ‘This thing is the new black…’ or ‘This thing is the best thing since sliced bread…’ (which has really never seemed that gigantic a leap in design innovation to me, but whatever).  Millennia ago we decided to start subdividing the inexorable passage of our mortal lives into incremental beats.

We invented calendars, seasons, and years, and seconds.  We called this process ‘time’, and it helped us put things into all sorts of useful explanatory categories:  socially we had the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Dark Ages’, the ‘Roaring Twenties’; privately we had our ‘tweens’, our ‘mid-life crises’, our ‘golden years’.

(Later we would even invent a magazine that we also decided to call ‘TIME’, and even it started getting nostalgic and naming people ‘Person of the Year.’  See?  We can’t help our little selves…)

Everything had a label, everything had a place, and these classifications helped explain one period’s relationship to everything else in the continuum: Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the paranoid anti-government sensibility of The X-Files gave way to the pro-security, cowboy morality of 24; the Teletubbies and that freaky glowing baby head in the sun gave way to whatever tweaked out cocktail of amphetamines conjured Yo Gabba Gabba.

But despite being a natural impulse of our communal efforts to wrangle a rational shape onto the indifferent, chaotic maelstrom of the world around us, it is still foolish to presume that any period in time can be one thing.  Indeed, it’s asinine to think that the multitudinous panoply of human experience – a miasma of social, political, and ideological concurrence, each impacting upon one another in incomprehensibly complex, intricate ways – could ever be reduced to some pithy catchphrase, wrapped up with a trite little bow.

You’d have to be an idiot, so drunk on your own arrogance that you were wilfully blind to reality, ripe for embarrassment and derision…

…And can you imagine if that clown tried to publish such a redundant retrospective in February?

Ha.  Ha Ha Haaaaaa…

Ha.

So anyway:

2013 was all about the Selfie.

Calvin-Hobbes

IMAGE: The exquisite Calvin and Hobbes ‘selfie’ by Bill Waterson

Phase the Second: Wherein I Explain Myself – While Taking Petty Pot Shots At Celebrities I Will Never Meet

I mean, I must be right, no?

After all, if I was to use the most hackneyed tactic of the lazy debater, I would just jump straight to a dictionary definition – and this was the year that the Oxford Dictionary declared ‘Selfie’ (the act of taking a photograph of oneself and uploading it to social media) as their word of the year.**  According to Oxford, given the ubiquity of the practice (visible in the popularity of websites such as Instagram and Vine) and the explosion of usage for the word itself (which they claim has risen 17,000% in the span of one year) ‘Selfie’ best encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist.

(It is also the dictionary definition of the unspeakable horror haunting the dreams of anyone subjected to yet another one of Geraldo Rivera’s bids to put his job description in perpetual inverted commas).

So, as summaries of 2013 go, I think it’s an entirely fitting choice – though not, perhaps, for the reasons that might at first spring to mind.

Sure, if one chooses to view it uncharitably, the word can appear to be a searing indictment of a culture descending into narcissistic excess.  In a year in which Miley Cyrus followed the same tired routine of nearly every pop starlet before her  and tried to ‘rebrand’ herself as a sexualised adult in the most predictably derivative way possible (Twerking!  Naked video clips!  Tongue photos!  …Can anybody even get through reading the words ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘controversy’ without having to stifle a yawn anymore?), in a year where Justin Bieber adamantly hoped that Anne Frank would have been a rabid fan of his, and Shia LaBeouf disappeared up his own …ego, revealed to be a egomaniacally deluded serial plagiarist, it may seem that the word ‘Selfie’ is a fitting label for a culture too concerned with celebrating the vain and self-involved; a society so obsessed with itself that simply the act of existing, possessing a face, and having the capacity to sign up to a social media account, is enough to warrant celebration.

But dig deeper than this rudimentary cynicism, and the act of taking a ‘Selfie’ offers a far more fitting metaphor for the state of contemporary culture…

After all, this is a year in which the western world has been in a constant interrogation of the nature self-hood; a year in which our news, our entertainment, our politics, all meditated upon the notions of privacy, individuality, and identity as arguably never before.  2013, it turns out, was posing for a ‘selfie’, and the result, as we uploaded it to our facebook accounts (which had just removed the option to make your account ‘Private’ in its search engine) was a spray of contradictory emoticons that are quite revealing to explore…

Insert Face Here

Phase the Third: Wherein I flatter myself to think that the NSA would give even half a damn about this blog

In the news, identity – it’s mutability, it’s sanctity, its currency – was repeatedly at the forefront of many of the stories that dominated the headlines.***

The year was littered with bizarre stories of pseudonyms and squabbles over the ‘true’ identity of some of the world’s most prominent figures.  Whereas in most years it would be difficult to know what to do with the information that the ‘real’ Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, or to make sense of why the western world should stop to observe the otherwise unremarkable birth of a healthy baby boy (a boy who, before his fontanels have even closed, had the weight of a wholly ceremonial British aristocracy placed upon his shoulders), but in 2013, it all seemed to make a deranged sense: this was a year obsessed with identity; about who you were and where you were and what (if anything) that meant.

The year began by exposing the ease with which identity can be fabricated.

In January, Manti Te’o, football player for Notre Dame, was revealed to have had an entirely fictional girlfriend.  Te’o had played an heroic year of football, seemingly in the shade of the death of both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the same day.  It was believed that Kekua had ‘died’ the previous year, having suffered complications from her leukaemia – but was revealed later to have all been another ugly example of someone being ‘catfished’.  To take Te’o ‘s account of the story after the deception was revealed, he had believed that he was dating a woman in a long distance relationship, but was shocked to later discover that she was actually just the product of an extended prank being pulled by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasopo.

The revelation created all manner of embarrassment and confusion, but what this strange incident best illustrated – as people tried to pick through the contradictory details that had appeared in the public record over the past year – was the way in which real and fictional people had become inextricably blurred in the media’s account of Te’o’s rise to prominence.  Indeed, whatever Te’o knew of the deception, the way in which the media, in their hunger for myth-making pathos, helped calcify a false identity into ‘truth’ was something quite extraordinary – some biographical articles had even romantically described the details of their first flirtatious meeting, where apparently, against all conceivable logic, they locked eyes, and were drawn into the gravity of each other’s gaze.

Although under very different circumstances, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner also found his bid for New York mayor scuttled by a personal controversy rooted in false identity.  Attempting to return to politics after being disgraced two years earlier by the revelation of his salacious online proclivities (is that the most round-about way ever to say that he was sending people photographs of his penis?), Weiner had been attempting to run for mayor under the pretence that he was a changed man, one who had made mistakes, sure, but who had learned from these failures and put them behind him.  He was returning to public service more honest and self-disciplined.  In truth, Weiner had continued to engage in multiple texting affairs, and when this conflict in his image was exposed, it was in the form of a whole other identity: the alias ‘Carlos Danger’.  Weiner did continue on in one of the most weirdly antagonistic, sometimes petulant runs for office ever – getting into verbal confrontations with voters, mocking reporters for their accents, flipping people the bird after his concession speech – but the cognitive dissonance between the identity that he wanted to present to the world, and the one that he shared with people over the internet (the one that he had seemingly named after watching a poorly dubbed Mexican telenovella) proved too great, and his chances at victory evaporated.

On a far more serious note, this year saw the return of one of the most heinous cases of ‘mistaken identity’ in recent history.  In June, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed ‘neighbourhood watchman’, returned to the headlines when Zimmerman was brought to trial (the incident itself had occurred the previous year).  Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of all charges brought against him, with Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws cited as a primary reason for the not guilty verdict, and the outrage in response to this apparent racial discrimination (seemingly Martin could be suspected of being a criminal, be stalked, accused, and then killed,  because he committed the ‘crime’ of wearing a hoodie while black) erupted again.  The prejudice that Martin had suffered, both at the hands of Zimmerman and in some parts of the media in the aftermath of the shooting (semi-conscious moustache-hanger Geraldo Rivera, stated that Martin’s decision to wear a hoodie was as much to blame as Zimmerman for the incident), was seen to be a grim reflection of the experience many African Americans and minorities still face in contemporary society.  The protestor’s rallying cry ‘We Are Trayvon Martin’ (and later ‘We Are Not Trayvon Martin’) therefore became both a reclamation of identity and a potent statement on the universal suffering caused by bigotry.

Trayvon Martin

IMAGE: US Protests Over Trayvon Martin Verdict (Reuters)

As the year drew to a close, squabbles over identity, and how best to categorise a person’s life continued on, often in the most asinine of ways.  The passing of Nelson Mandela was met with several critics bickering over whether he should be remembered as a beacon for hope, forgiveness and change, or as a ‘terrorist’; and not even Santa  Claus was immune, dragged into incoherent disagreements over whether or not he was white.  Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took the time to indignantly insist to her audience that Santa was indeed Caucasian, thank you very much – no matter what a Slate article by Aisha Harris might have playfully mused.  Kelly later claimed that she was trying to inject ‘humour’ into her broadcast (something one might argue is already impossibly redundant for a show on Fox), but her declaration that ‘for all you kids watching at home: Santa just is white – Santa is what he is‘ seemed far more spiteful and territorial than it did festive and jolly.  (Although, to be fair, she makes most everything sound that way.)

Inarguably, the most glaring example of this new concern with identity surfaced at the midpoint of the year, however, with the revelation that the United State’s National Security Service was no longer only tasked with targeting potential security threats, but was methodically spying on foreign leaders (such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel) and routinely gathering the mass telephone, email and search data of all of its own citizens.

The scandal broke after Edward Snowden, a previous CIA employee contracted to the National Security Agency, became alarmed by what he was seeing at the NSA and decided to expose what he believed was a massive systemic overreach in their intelligence gathering operations.  He gathered together sensitive documents, and taking a leave of absence, leaked them to the press, subsequently fleeing into hiding where his passport was revoked, he was charged with espionage, and was sought by the US government for extradition and trial.

The central program with which Snowden took issue was labelled ‘PRISM’ (because all of this didn’t sound enough like a Bond film plot already…)  It was a system that gathered together into one database the user information and online content of any person who had any contact with the services of several major American companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google.****  Emails, phone calls, Skype chats, browsing histories, documents, all were seemingly available for perusal; and given that the only requirement for accessing this private information was a ‘three-hop query’, which meant that it could monitor the information not only of a suspect, but of anyone who might have had contact with that suspect, and then anyone who might have had contact with them, and then anyone who might have had contact with them.  It was like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only with less eighties nostalgia and more potential for invasive governmental overreach.  (Also, it made that town from Footloose look positively anarchic by comparison.)

It was now possible for people to be implicated and scrutinised not because of who they were, or who they associated with, but because they might once have had contact with someone who knew someone who knew someone…  Singular identity risked becoming so dispersed as to be meaningless at a time in which, ironically, a system had been designed to isolate the individual from the cacophony of the crowd.

In the process of bringing PRISM’s existence to light, Snowden’s own identity became currency as he traded obscurity for international notoriety.  He effectively became a human Rorschach Blot in the process – a ‘hero’, a ‘traitor’, an ‘anarchist’, a ‘patriot’, all depending upon who was describing him.  Meanwhile his revelations prompted a fierce, worldwide debate about the appropriate balance to strike between personal liberty and communal safety, between America’s proclamations of valuing freedom of speech and thought, and a potentially overriding duty to public safety.

The world has, of course, been witness to debates such as these in the past – the fallout from the McCarthy hearings and their hunt for communists being but one such example – but never before has the scope been so wide, nor the potential for personal invasion so absolute.  Consequentially, Snowden’s revelations have sparked a philosophical quandary that continues to rage, and it is proving itself to be one that has far-reaching ramifications for the heretofore uncharted landscape of cyber identity in a borderless digital age.

Edward Snowden

IMAGE: Edward Snowden (The Guardian)

Phase the Fourth: Wherein I Talk About Authorship …Sort Of

In 2013 the world of entertainment was likewise obsessed with identity at every level of the communicative chain: characters scrutinised their selfhood as never before, authors used the truth of themselves as another narrative tool, even audiences were compelled to consider their own place in the way texts make their meaning.

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the unveiling of a new generation of videogame consoles.  One of these new platforms however was almost sabotaged by issues of identity before it had even launched.

There were many nails in the coffin of Microsoft’s original tone deaf and aggressive design policies for their new Xbox One – when the phrase ‘#dealwithit‘ is inextricably linked with your product you can probably surmise that there is a corrosive disconnect between company and consumer – so to select one blunder amongst their cavalcade of PR missteps made would be all but impossible.  Certainly one of the most publicised though was the ‘always on’ requirement of the Kinect peripheral.  Microsoft were demanding that people who wanted to buy their console had to also purchase the Kinect (it came bundled with the machine), a camera and microphone attachment that remained constantly connected to the internet, that was capable of reading intricate body behaviour and recognising speech, and which the owner was never allowed to switch off, cover, or disconnect from Microsoft’s servers.

No doubt convinced that they could weather the birthing pains of entertainment’s shift toward all-digital media (or so they thought), Microsoft were insisting upon this intrusive requirement (amongst numerous others), because they knew that identity itself is profitable.  After all, regulating the sale of a game to an individual’s nametag stood to make far more money than allowing that person to own the game without restriction (to sell or pass it on to others); being able to monitor how many people were in a room about to watch a downloaded new-release movie had a potential for further revenue; collecting data on each individual member of your audience’s entertainment habits allowed the dashboard advertising to be more effectively targeted to their specific interests.  Identity was currency – a guaranteed future earner after the initial sale; and by better understanding who their audience were (and retaining complete control over what and how they consume), they stood to be far more profitable.

But coming as it did in the immediate wake of the NSA spying scandal, amidst accusations that several prominent companies – including Microsoft – were willingly supplying the Prism program with information, to many this promise of compulsory intrusion into one’s private space seemed rather distasteful.  The expressionless, unblinking eye of the Kinect suddenly became the symbol of a rally against the company’s other proposed draconian policy changes: the licensing  rather than the ownership of games; the alienation of the indie market; the requirement to always play online; the inability to lend or re-sell games; the start button demanding that you to sacrifice three kittens to a golden altar of the Master Chief’s head, etc.

xbox one kinect lens

IMAGE: Xbox One Kinect Peripheral: ‘Look Consumers, I can see you’re really upset about this.  I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.’

Thrust into the public’s consciousness, the Kinect and the Xbox One became a referendum on the right to preserve one’s identity (their gaming and viewing habits, their personal information, and even their personal space) from corporate exploitation, and Microsoft watched as it was voted on by consumers in real time – even before the point of purchase.  Pre-order sales floundered, pre-release press turned sour, and when Microsoft’s only reply to the concerns of its audience was to have the (not surprisingly now replaced) head of their Xbox division, Don Mattrick, petulantly tell them that they had to either except these impositions or just keep buying their old last-generation machine the mood became even darker.

Eventually, when it was clear that their closest competition, Sony, was romping away with victory, simply by treating their customers as adults who could decide for themselves how to use the products they owned (ironic considering Sony’s own controversy with a similar, but less invasive issue on the PS3), Microsoft was forced to walk back every one of their policies in response to the ‘candid feedback’ of their fans.

In a different way, identity was also at the heart of several of the year’s biggest literary scandals.  In Australia, two award-winning poets, Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn, were revealed to be serial plagiarists, rather shamelessly trying to elevate their own name by stealing from the work of others.  Only after their works had been revealed to be Frankenstein’s monsters of unattributed, verbatim quotation did either of them attempt to explain them as pieces of ‘pastiche’ – until that moment they were happy enough for people to read it as the sole product of their singular imagination and labour.  Thankfully, the exposure turned out to be the puncturing of some rather inflated egos rather than a validation of their eleventh hour claims of uncredited ‘homage’.

In the world of popular fiction, an anonymous tip off to a reporter exposed J.K. Rowling as the real author behind the nom de plume ‘Robert Galbraith’, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Although anyone’s sceptical spider sense would have suspected that this leak came from the publishing company itself, who stood to make millions in the fallout – alongside the poetic symmetry of the book being titled after a ‘cuckoo’, a bird that deceptively lays its eggs in another bird’s nest – the outing was subsequently revealed as a slip up with lawyers.

cuckoos calling

IMAGE: The Cuckoo’s Calling cover (Little, Brown & Company)

The fact that Rowling had a pseudonym was ultimately nothing surprising.  Having penned the blockbuster Harry Potter series, the author faced a daunting level of expectation and scrutiny for any future projects (just as her first post-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, had received), so shedding her identity must have been enormously freeing.  The book could live or die on its own merits – or at least be read fairly by the lowered expectations.  Unfortunately for Rowling, what happened next was not very surprising either…

‘Robert Galbraith’ had been introduced to the world as a retired military police investigator who had decided to pen his first fictional novel, and the result was a critically well received but moderately selling work of crime genre fiction.  Whatever his next book was going to be was looked forward to with a small but growing anticipation.  However, once Rowling’s name was in the mix, not-surprisingly, the work blew up.  Stock ran out, reprints flew into production.  A novel that had done little more than be commended as an admirably solid first attempt was suddenly a sensation, with readers combing through the pages looking for clues and grammatical tells.

Whether or not Rowling’s intention was to reveal Galbraith’s true identity in future (again: ‘cuckoo‘), for now it was torpedoed, and the curiously tenuous interrelationship between audience and author was vividly exposed.  Rowling’s masquerade had allowed her a restorative creative refuge that enabled her to speak to the reader in a wholly unique, more intimate way, with no preconceptions or expectations weighing down their discourse.  With that mask stripped away, the cache of her name proved enormously successful for the sales of the book and garnered her plaudits from those who had been duped, but it ultimately undermined her intent.  The story is by no means a tragedy (again, she was commended for her skill, and her publishers are hardly crying), but it was a curious reminder of how an artist can feel trapped by their own public image, and how success can be so enmeshed with personality.

On a smaller scale (by in my opinion far more tragic), one of my personal favourite podcasts, Yeah, It’s That Bad, was seemingly undone by the need to preserve their anonymity.  Yeah, It’s That Bad was a marvellously improbable product, one that consistently defied expectation in order to create something fantastically enjoyable, and, ironically for a show built around the premise of reviewing bad movies, refreshingly unique.*****  Indeed, if you were tasked with writing down a list of all of the most clichéd elements that any derivative amateur podcast always seems to contain, what you would end up with is a bare bones description of what Yeah, It’s That Bad, in essence, turned out to be: A bunch of guys (check), sitting around together talking about a bad movie (check), reviewing what they had just seen while cracking jokes (check).  And yet…

Yeah Its That Bad

What elevated Yeah… (besides its brisk editing and deceptively high production value) was the hosts’ appealing chemistry.  Joel, Martin and Kevin each had distinct personality, and had clearly known each other for years, giving them a natural rapport that was inviting rather than alienating.  Unlike the innumerable other pale imitations that littered the field of crappy-film-reviews, they weren’t simply reading off pre-written gags, no one was calling-in on a temperamental Skype connection; they were three people, sitting around a table, involved in a conversation – one that was brightened by their quick wit, penchant for exaggeration, and ability to build upon each others’ observations.  There was no pretention, no forced guffaws, and they treated both their subject matter and their audience with respect.

In contrast to a podcast like How Did This Get Made? which begins with the presumption that the film being watched is garbage and thus a cheap punching bag, the hosts of Yeah… all clearly shared a genuine love of art and film (and the pleasures of a cheesy film done right), and were legitimately interested in debating whether the material they had viewed was unjustly maligned.  Consequentially, amongst the jocularity, there was thoughtful discussion of narrative conventions and cinematic pitfalls, the diminishing returns of anodyne sequels, the scourge of the Mary Sue, problems with pacing and characterisation – their analysis of the film Sucker Punch (a piece of cinema that I found grotesque) remains one of the most interesting and considered that I have yet encountered.

But best of all for those who decided to follow these three on their journey, Joel, Martin and Kevin understood radio as a theatre of the mind, and knew how to propel and expand upon a comedic riff without tipping over into lazy catchphrase.  By the time the show was brought to its premature end the ‘Yeah It’s That Bad Headquarters’ was said to be an orbital satellite circling Earth, Dennis Quaid, doyen of contemptuously wooden acting, was the patron saint of a swollen congregation of actors who phoned in their performances having barely wiped the craft services lunch from their mouths, the Beef-O-Meter was a meticulously calibrated gauge of an actor’s hotness (the Rock almost broke the scale), Joel’s never-ending quest to ‘follow the money’ was reaping damning results, and the Twilight films were one mumbled, dead-eyed Kristen Stewart performance away from killing them all.

It was an adaptive production, one that evolved with the needs of its audience and the benefit of the discussion (even the podcast’s name and premise weren’t locked in for the first handful of shows as they found their rhythm).  They took fan requests, they invited feedback, they grew and honed and streamlined; but the one feature that they maintained, that ultimately turned into their Achilles heel, was their anonymity.  It was never a secret that they were using fake names – indeed, it was repeatedly cited, without fanfare.  They weren’t industry insiders, or famous faces, or gossips with dirt to dish, they were just three friends producing a free program, who weren’t interested in becoming famous if it meant impacting upon their daily life.

The story was left necessarily vague (and I freely admit that the following account may be riddled with inaccuracies), but for those who followed the drama in the show’s final weeks, it was heavily implied that an online blogger had discovered who the three leads of the podcast actually were, and was going to reveal their names to the world.  Why anyone would want to know this completely irrelevant information, or what it’s exposure would even achieve, was left a complete mystery.  Those already familiar with the program had no interest in who these people ‘really’ were; those unfamiliar would care even less.  The trio therefore appealed to the blogger not reveal their identities, but apparently the idea that someone would not welcome fame was too much to comprehend, and the blogger intended to do so anyway.

But their anonymity wasn’t a bluff.  It wasn’t some playful game that they were inviting their audience to participate in uncovering.  Even in such a whimsical and mischievous format their privacy was a necessity – ironically, it allowed them to be more open with their fans, to carve out a space in which they could speak honestly and engage freely without impact upon their occupations or personal lives.  So the damage was done.  One blogger’s desire to publish a scoop that no one wanted, revealing identities that were irrelevant anyway, destroyed the very thing that they were misguidedly trying to intrude upon.  And with that, identity was shown to once again have a price – even for a free podcast.

Yeah Its That Bad Fan Art by Dan

IMAGE: Yeah It’s That Bad fan art by ‘Dan’

Phase the Fifth: Wherein I Get Pissy With Man of Steel Yet Again

The content of much of 2013’s entertainments seemed obsessed with identity too, exploring and overanalysing humanity’s sense of self.  Iconic characters were scrutinised, reintroduced, redefined.  Famous figures were repeatedly dismantled, separated into their constituent parts, and reconstructed.  It was a year of origins, and tales of stripping characters down to their core, the results of which were sometimes highly profitable, at other times incoherent trash.

Lara Croft spent the beginning of the year being re-birthed into the world in Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot, a bombastic origin story (which, despite a few issues, I enjoyed a great deal, actually) that had her both physically and metaphorically doing battle with the weight of her already established legend.  Alongside the shift in genre – from the straight 3D puzzle platforming of the old to the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, survival action of the new – a design that literally has the player participate in growing her skills up from rudimentary quick-time-events into the assertive, capable adventurer that we remember – the story seems to play out a meta-narrative of fighting against the weight of Lara’s past as a videogame idol.

tomb raider lara croft

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Square Enix)

In the fiction, Lara is stranded on an island in which a tribe of homicidal worshipers are devoted to an ancient demigoddess that they are trying to revive in a new body.  As a metaphor for the foreseeable backlash of fans who wanted a straightforward remake of the old game, the imagery is particularly potent.  This crazed armada of zealots (seriously: despite this island being presented as a mixture of LOST and Gilligan’s Island it is like Spring Break for unhinged sociopaths) are trying to wholesale resurrect the idealised female figure that they adore – but as Lara exhibits, that creature no longer belongs in this fiction.  Instead, literally fighting her way out of the shadow of that history, Lara manifests the franchise’s new female protagonist: a resourceful, plucky, weathered young warrior, eager to do a bit of archaeology if people will stop trying to bury a hatchet in her face for five minutes.

When she stabs the reanimated statue of the demon that would seek to reclaim this world, it explodes in an eruption of pixels, the sun only then breaking through the cloud cover to restore life to the land.  Lara’s existential quest of self-discovery is finally at an end.  The ethereal power and beauty of the dead queen is never disputed, but the act of clinging to her memory so slavishly is shown to result only in stagnation, disappointment and decay.  Lara sloughs off the expectation of the old to resurface as something familiar, but new.  What exactly that turns out to be awaits to be seen in future instalments, but for now I am certainly looking forward to following the journey.

(I should also briefly clarify: I am in no way exaggerating when I use the word ‘re-birth‘ in describing this reintroduction of Lara Croft.  Replay that opening sequence in which Lara has to scramble and claw her way out of a cave that is convulsing and collapsing around her, only to emerge into the world wet, and crying, and blood-smeared, and the game creator’s intent to show how ‘A survivor is born‘ becomes quite (perhaps rather too) overt.)

Batman: Arkham Origins, as the name implies, likewise tried to embrace the possibilities of a prequel – although a cynic might suggest this was more an attempt to disguise a filler entry into the franchise by a B-team of coders, rather than a crucial addition to the overarching narrative.  Proving to be by no means a bad game – the foundations upon which it was built are too strong – it’s narrative does seem a little overstuffed with first meetings and introductions, attempting to cram the seedlings of an entire mythos into the span of a single evening gauntlet.

Batman Arkham Origins

IMAGE: Batman Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montreal)

This promise to dig into the core of Batman’s identity was so central to the game’s theme that even its advertising slogan was intent on calling it out.  ‘Your enemies will define you’, it declared – a potentially dangerous gambit for a narrative is so riddled (not a pun) with players from Batman’s B and C level rogues gallery.  Clearly this was actually a reference to the predictable reveal of the narrative’s actual big bad, and the establishment of their yingy yangy brand of co-dependent mental instability, but until that moment, Firefly, Copperhead and Black Mask are some pretty weak tea that don’t say much of the man behind the cowl.  …But again, perhaps that was ultimately the point.  Until Batman’s true antagonist emerged he was just going through the motions.

In cinemas, Man of Steel – one of the most divisive pieces of mass market entertainment of the year – was an attempt to likewise re-establish an icon, to explore the identity of the ‘man’ behind the legend of Superman.  …I say ‘attempt’, of course, because all it ultimately managed to offer was Zack Snyder’s biggest budget version of the same tediously adolescent nihilistic torture porn he has been reproducing ad nauseam throughout his career.  The fact that he managed to turn one of fiction’s most hopeful, inspirational figures into a mopey, selfish, irresponsible manchild, with an unchecked messiah complex, is so grotesque that (if it appeared in any way that he’d done it intentionally) it might almost be interesting; but the sycophantic way that Snyder depicts the perennially idiotic people of Earth unconditionally loving our new alien overlord, despite his wanton destruction, despite his psychotic mood swings, despite becoming an unapologetic law unto himself, makes the whole film crumble into a lazy, emotionless void of themeless, characterless carnage.

…I did not enjoy the film.  You probably couldn’t tell.

Iron Man 3 (which, going by the reaction on the internet, I alone on Earth seem to have liked), bucked the prequel/reboot trend to actually advance a plot, but even it did so by still choosing to break down the character of Tony Stark (yes, in a way a little too reminiscent of Skyfall …and The Dark Knight Rises …and The Avengers …and The Care Bear Movie, probably), and rediscover the man beneath the suit (…or the several hundred progressively inferior suits, as the case may be).  It even flashed back to the years before Tony had learned to take responsibility for his actions, fashioning a proto-antagonist, apparently of his own making, that he had to overcome in the present to reclaim his life.

Iron-Man-3

IMAGE: Iron Man 3 (Marvel/Disney)

No doubt the year’s most baffling attempt to explore this theme of selfhood came (predictably) in the form of a misguided film adaptation of a classic novel.  The Great Gatsby, a story that gnaws at the impossible fantasy of ever knowing the truth of another human being – what motivates them, what drives their every action, even in spite of themselves – was turned into a fidgety music video that mostly chewed the scenery and hyperbolically bloated every moment of subtly that gave the original work such lean, haunting grace.  Instead of a melancholy character’s reflection upon a defining, if inexplicable time in his personal history, we had Nick Carraway going insane and desperately writing the book from within an asylum.  Because that adds… well… absolutely nothing, besides being mawkish and stupid.  But hell, why not?  We’re already filming in cinema’s most pointless 3D, with dance routines that feel like acid trips, and a whole recreation of Long Island that looks like a surreal day dream slapped together by the work-experience kid at Industrial Light and Magic – so go nuts.

the great gatsby

IMAGE: The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)

It’s a great shame, though, because if director Baz Luhrmann had not turned the narrative into a shallow cartoon, it could have been a chillingly prescient summation of the themes of identity, presumption and self-delusion that have echoed throughout this year.  Had the film managed to capture the glistening nostalgia of Gatsby’s unattainable dream, or the suave facade that obscured his ineffable truths, it could have had much to say.  Instead all it exhibited was how hollow a film can become when its creators repeat the same mistakes its characters do: Gatsby puts on a big display to get Daisy’s attention and consequentially gets chewed up in the maelstrom of her and her husband’s vapid recklessness; Luhrmann, mistaking spectacle for substance, does much the same, overburdening his work with gaudy tricks and distractions that eventually smother its central, sober conceit.

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Well he was right about one thing.  The audience certainly felt beaten.

In the land of television, show runners, like filmmakers, seemed obsessed with returning to the formative years of familiar characters, reintroducing them in unfamiliar contexts under the presumption that this interrogation of their genesis would somehow reveal something new.  Hannibal invited viewers to experience the reptilian grace and gastronomical proclivities of Hannibal Lecter before he got all orange jumpsuit-y in Silence of the Lambs (and yes, I know that Red Dragon was a prequel too).  Meanwhile, anyone who ever wondered what Norman Bates got up to in the years before his mother became the world’s most judgemental rocking-corpse could watch Bates Motel and live out the excitement of seeing an awkward pubescent boy turn inexorably into a sex-crazed sociopath (arguably something most already are).

Dracula tried to recast fiction’s most flamboyant, dead-eyed bloodsucker (no, not Robert Pattison; the other one) into a newly industrialising London, deciding that the best way to capture the inconceivable menace of a character who necessarily remains in the shadows of a novel shrewd enough to reveal him only in glimpses and half-truths, was to slap him in the centre of a serialised melodrama that revolved around him, that attempted to explain his motivations, and that stripped him of his portentous obscurity.

Almost certainly the year’s biggest television event however (aside from a certain rouge wedding), was the conclusion of Breaking Bad, a show that offered one of the most compelling, absorbing depictions of a human journey descent into moral compromise and abject evil.  Vince Gilligan’s Faustian descent was so deeply invested in questioning its protagonist’s fractured identity, and the consequence of his incremental conciliations, that it ran to its conclusion with the focal character’s darkly ironic demand ‘Remember my name’ resounding through every scene.  Whether anything really was left of Walter White beneath the overwhelming monstrosity of ‘Heisenberg’ haunted the show’s final episodes.  Was White still the man he believed himself to be?  Was he the sum of his crimes?  Are we our intent or our action?  Are we what we hope to be, or the legacy others write for us?

Breaking Bad

IMAGE: Breaking Bad (AMC)

Phase the Sixth: Wherein I Explain What This Tedious ‘Phase’ Conceit Is All About

At the end of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (spoiler warning for a century-old novel), the heroine Tess has been killed – seemingly sacrificed to the whim of a hostile universe that has finished its sport with her.  Meanwhile, her lover, Angel Clare, is ironically punished by the author for his earlier abandonment of Tess with the suggestion that he will now go on to marry her younger sister, having promised Tess in her final moments that he would do so.  Initially it seems like a strange penalty.  Earlier in the book Angel had been mortified that the young, virginal beauty he had fallen in love with, having been the victim of a sexual assault, had already borne and lost a child, so in theory he has now been ‘rewarded’ with exactly what he desired: a younger virginal beauty, more divine than even her deceased sibling.  Indeed, Liza-Lu is described at this point as:

‘a tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes.’ (p.488)

But the clear, lamentable truth that hangs over this conclusion is that of course Tess cannot be so easily replaced, cannot be substituted.  Clare gets what he once wanted, but it will forever be the most vivid reminder of the irreplaceable individual he once callously rejected.

It’s an absence symbolised by the description of Liza-Lu’s unsullied perfection.  Tess, in contrast to her sister, was flawed, marked by a physical blemish that once enraptured Clare.  Earlier in the novel, when he first becomes smitten with Tess, she is described thus:

‘How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation.  And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth.  To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening.  He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow.  Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand.  But no — they were not perfect.  And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.'(pp.208-9)

Already a story fundamentally concerned with the nebulous nature of identity – Tess Durbeyfield’s life is tragically upended when it is believed that she is actually a descendant of the d’Urberville line of ancient knights – the conclusion of the novel reveals itself to be a condemnation of Angel’s earlier sanctimonious judgement.  For Angel, Tess proved to be an idea – a fantasy upon which he could project his own longing.  Upon discovering the truth beneath his pretty lie he fled, only later realising his mistake.  Consequentially, the truth of that mistake will haunt him the rest of his life.  He failed to see the woman beneath the image until it was too late.

Because we are all our ineffable faults and flaws and failures, all marked by our history.  And the way we carry our imperfections define us – just as Tess, resolute, carried her maddeningly imperfect lip.

In this, the beginning of a new millennium, our popular culture seems to be depicting us all in a burgeoning state of adolescent self-awareness, already striving to learn the lesson that Angel Clare ignorantly missed.  Whether a reaction to the fears of terrorism and global war that have hung over the 21st century, or a natural progression of our growth into a more immersive digital age, modern culture has seemingly reached a point of necessary personal reflection.  We’ve turned the lens back upon ourselves, saturating the world with an onslaught of pop-cultural ‘selfies’.  But it’s not quite the narcissistic act of self-aggrandisement that it might at first appear.  Instead it is an attempt to try and make sense of ourselves and our circumstance, to define who we are and what we believe in, through introspection and self-analysis.

Sometimes it is as all-encompassing as dissecting the invasion of a clandestine global spy program; sometimes it is wondering why Batman never used those shock gloves again in the following games.  We might be grinning inanely into a camera; protesting unjustifiable personal tragedy; playing with our audience’s expectations with a false persona; or dressing up our paranoias in superhero theatrics; in any instance, the questions remain universal: it is a meditation upon who and where we are, and what all of that means going forward.

What are those indefinable imperfections that give us our humanity, and how can we best preserve them in the daunting, unknowable age still to come?

tess of the durbervilles by D A Wehrschmidt

IMAGE: Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustration by D.A. Wehrschmidt

* On the plus side, previous, artificial attempts to name the year (such as ‘The year of Luigi’) are excoriated by the reality of lived experience (revealing instead ‘The year of people-are-still-releasing-stuff-on-the-Wii-U?’)  …Sorry.  That was a cheap shot.  I still love you, Nintendo.

** Apparently the origin of the word ‘Selfie’ is Australian, having been traced back to an Australian forum post (in which a young man took a photo of some damage he had done to his face while extremely drunk) in 2002.  As the Oxford summary states, we ‘Strayans do like to add ‘-ie’ to the ends of words – barbie, cossie, sickie, freebie, pressie, symbolic interactionismie (okay, that one’s less popular).  So let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that we have a young, drunk ‘Aussie’ to thank for this year’s expansion of the English language.  You’re welcome.  …Now please forgive us for Baz Luhmann.

*** And yes, I said ‘Headlines’, so let’s just take it as read that I am going to be shamefully skipping many of the most tragic and genuinely significant global events, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria and the massacres in Egypt – after all, that is sadly what the news media far too frequently seems to do.

**** It was also the year that Katy Perry released an album called Prism, which caused a different kind of rightful public outcry.  I’m being facetious, of course, but just so that it doesn’t seem like I’m taking a lazy pot shot at a recording artist that bores me desperately (I am), here’s a fun bit of trivia to justify the snark: Perry’s new record was literally banned here in Australia.  Not because of the content of the music (that would require there to be content – BAM!), but because she had woven living seeds into the album’s paper sleeve.  The idea, I believe, was that you plant the album and it would grow into flowers.  Unfortunately for Perry, the flowers are listed as a biohazard here in Australia (so are her lyrics – BAM BAM!), meaning that listeners can’t take her advice and bury her latest album underground (no matter how much they may want to after listening to it – And it’s a Hat Trick!)  …I want to take this opportunity to apologise to any Katy Perry fans reading.  I really don’t know what just got into me.

***** You can read a lovely elegiac summary of Yeah It’s That Bad that catalogues its hosts, its format, and its demise here.  Vale Yeah It’s That Bad.  In a world of weak weak weak men, you did good.

‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…’: Art, Criticism, and Poop

Posted in art, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by drayfish

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

‘That’s What He Said’: WhatCulture, Australian Poetry, and Plagiarism

Posted in art, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2013 by drayfish

Odysseus and Suitors

IMAGE: Odysseus Confronts the Suitors

There’s a sign on my office door that depicts Odysseus in his moment of merciless slaughter.  It’s an image taken from an ancient Greek vase.  There’s no gore or viscera, or even facial expressions, merely rudimentary silhouetted shapes against a stark burnt umber backdrop; and yet the ghoulish subject of the scene is wholly unnerving nonetheless.  It takes place at the conclusion of The Odyssey.  Odysseus stands in front an exit that he has just locked shut, towering, unyielding, as he rains down a barrage of arrows upon the throng of suitors that have plagued his home for years.  Seen in profile, Odysseus towers on one side of the picture, a man whose mettle has been tested, the bow in his hand flashing as his victims squeal and gnash their teeth in a wild clamour, their desperate pleading only cut short by the cold reprieve of an inexorable death.

Beneath the image I have written:

‘Dr Dray Explains His Policy On Plagiarism.’

I put it up as a playful warning to my students, situating it about eye height for anyone who would come to knock on my door.  It’s an image so hyperbolically visceral and ferocious that it would elicit chuckles, and that will (hopefully) stick in their mind once the gag subsides.

The only thing is – I’m not really joking.

Okay, sure, when I encounter plagiarism I don’t string a mighty bow and block up the doors, but I do find it inexcusable.  And if it proves to be methodical, and not accidental, it becomes unforgivable, and the slaughter – metaphorical or no – begins.

Because, both as an academic and a writer, the idea of knowingly thieving another person’s work, claiming ownership of thought and creative practice without even attribution or acknowledgement, strikes me as the most vile act anyone who claims to be a writer can perform.  An act of arrogance and laziness and shamelessness, it forever tarnishes the perpetrator, proving that they have no regard for their victims, their readers, or even themselves.

While I wish this post were just an arbitrary listing of things I hate (aren’t they always fun?), it is, sadly, motivated by two recent grotesque and glaring examples of such fraudulence within circles I have frequented.

So journey with me, won’t you, as we take a magical ride through the tragically proliferating culture of flagrant plagiarism…

Firstly, at the WhatCulture website.

For those unaware, I actually used to write for WhatCulture.  Well, when I say ‘write’ for them, I should clarify: I would write articles for my Themenastics blog, but would later contribute some of them to be republished there.  There was no payment or expectation of first-publication, so I didn’t feel conflicted in repurposing my own work.

(It has since been discovered that WhatCulture was, for a period, openly misleading potential contributors by advertising paid freelance writing positions through agencies such as the Mandy website, in order to attract writers to whom they would only offer unpaid work.  This misbehaviour  was completely unbeknownst to me (I had offered to contribute my pieces unpaid from the start), but Paul Martinovic, a freelance writer and blogger who was a victim of this deception, spoke of his experience having taken the WhatCulture editors’ bait.)

When I started submitting to WhatCulture, well over a year ago, it seemed a promising little start-up.  The mission statement, to give a voice to fans of popular culture – film, television, music, comics – that would allow them to speak to the aspects of these fictions that they loved, ideally putting them into some kind of critical context, seemed worthy.  Like an AV Club with more readership participation, it seemed inspiring that the editors were so eager to provide a platform for  those enthusiasts who might otherwise have their opinion languish unseen.

As time went on, however, the quality of WhatCulture steadily declined into something that – even with my relatively superficial familiarity with the site – I scarcely recognised.  It seemed to happily wallow (in many cases seemingly as a direct influence of one of the writers I am about to denounce) in a snide, click-baiting swamp of cheap titillation and contrarian bickering, repeatedly sacrificing editorial substance so as to chase minor controversy for page-hits by whatever means it could.  Articles with little more than a thousand words of copy were suddenly being split into several pages that needed to be clicked through, literally just to artificially inflate the page traffic, and the site started running progressively more pieces such as ’10 Awful Movies You Only Watched For the Nude Scenes’ (with screen grabs and clips!  Yay!), fan boy lures like ‘PS4: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over Xbox 720’ and ‘Xbox 720: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over PS4’, each of which was written by the same author (again, more on him in just a second), merely days apart, with only the names of the consoles swapped around.  And who could forget the journalistic high water mark of See The Newcastle City Wall Sex Picture Taken From WhatCulture’s Office’.  An article that is exactly as pathetic and puerille as you might suspect it to be.

whatcultureshadow3

So despite continuing to happily produce columns for Themenastics (and now to contribute pieces to the online journal PopMatters), as time has gone on I have been less inclined to make my writings available to WhatCulture.  It wasn’t an act of protest, or judgement – I am under absolutely no delusions that my work was in any way missed – I simply lost interest in their new unspoken mandate, hoping that they might pull out of this disheartening nosedive, but continuously discouraged by the material that I instead saw them promote.

And consistently, to my mind, the worst offender amongst this race toward mediocrity was WhatCulture’s senior (and therefore paid) film reviewer and contributor Shaun Munro.  I had been struck by the inanity of some of Munro’s work – it was he who had copy-pasted his Xbox One vs Playstation 4 article with the names flipped – but as time wore on he seemed to use the site as his own toilet wall, listing actresses who, in his opinion, ‘desperately need to go nude’ in future (as opposed to his desperately needing to get a personal life), salivating over every scrap of Scarlet Johansson’s flesh he could track down before his (apparently highly anticipated) opportunity to see her naked in the film Under the Skin, and offering a breaking ‘Special Report’ after seeing said film, providing a detailed list of every body part and crevice he had personally spied with the kind of obsessive, lecherous specificity you would scarcely find outside a legal deposition testimony.

‘Let me tell you about the full frontal nudity I just saw…  Cwwooaarrrrr…’  Truly, journalism at its finest.

It was therefore something of  a surprise to learn, two weeks ago, that my opinion of Munro actually was able to sink even lower, as it turns out that these masturbatory jaunts were apparently the only material he can comfortably produce without resorting to theft.

Garfield Plagiarism

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (21/4/2008)

As was revealed by a blogger named Sr. Mxy in an exhaustive Tumblr that still only catalogues a portion of his innumerable plagiarisms, Munro, along with another WhatCulture writer and associate editor, T.J. Barnard (also a paid contributor), had been stealing work from the Cracked website and passing it off as their own.  What made it an even more pernicious act was that the material they were helping themselves to was in a draft form, and had therefore not yet been published.  Part of the Cracked editorial process apparently involves submitting outlines and edits into an online workshop system that can only be accessed by contributors to the site and its editors; Munro and Barnard, who each had access to this site, had repeatedly fished through this raw material and taken it as their own, frequently with little, if any, alteration (the blog buydemocracy has a far more thorough account of the process in their discussion of this sad debacle).  As successful authors on the Cracked website are paid – but only for work that is original – this therefore meant that Munro and Barnard were literally robbing these writers of their rightful earnings; and as WhatCulture was able to publish this stolen material faster than it would have travelled through the Cracked editorial process, there is a very real chance that even if the victims of their plagiarism were able to go on and publish their own hard work, they would have been doubly mistreated, forced to then fend off accusations that it was they who ripped off Munro and Barnard

It appears that these acts of plagiarism were pointed out to Munro, Barnard and their editors at WhatCulture repeatedly, but aside from such comments being unceremoniously deleted from any pages on the WhatCulture site, little to nothing was done until Sr. Mxy assembled his incontrovertible evidence, other writers with past experience of Munro and Barnard’s wrongdoing came forward to give their accounts of similar experiences in the past, and the issue was unable to be quashed any further.  WhatCulture – once the issue became unavoidable – published an apology to their readers and the Cracked writers who had been wronged.  The statement has already been buried by their daily feed and is not linked to their front page, but it can be found here.

A writer by the name of Ali Gray at the website The Shiznit offers a fantastic personal account of the worrying implications of WhatCulture’s blasé editorial and business practices, and what, by association, it might mean for the online blogging community.*  Indeed, Ali even, seemingly, has personal experience with what is revealed to be Shaun Munro’s long history with serial plagiarism, an act he will seemingly employ for paid work, for unearned esteem, or even just to try and win a free videogame.

If true (and given the wellspring of evidence and personal accounts now surfacing I am very much inclined to believe that it is), it gives the lie to Munro’s ‘unreserved’ apology for his actions, and rather puts in context his repeated censoring of people’s comments when they would point out his fraud.  He seems to have been well aware of his actions for several years – his entire career seemingly cultivated from this knowing, ongoing theft.  And given that he will soon be continuing his work with employers who have seen this history, perhaps even been complicit in perpetrating it themselves, there is little to indicate that anything substantive will change.

Some have commended WhatCulture for finally admitting that something was wrong, for apologising to the writers whose work was stolen, offering to pay them $50 each in damages, and for even asking forgiveness of their own plagiarising employees, Munro and Barnard, who they claim were under too much pressure to produce material.  Others who have read the statement have pointed out that this admission was a shamefully long time coming, particularly given the amount of evidence provided, that $50 dollars is considerably less than those writers would have earned had their work not been ‘misappropriated’, and that by apologising to people who have openly misled their employers, fellow writers, and readers, by choosing to temporarily suspend rather than dismiss them, they are tacitly endorsing their actions and inviting more such misbehaviour in future.

…Well, when I say ‘others‘ have said this, what I mean is: I am saying this.  I am saying this rather adamantly.

After all, Munro and Barnard (the editors of WhatCulture assure us) ‘apologise unreservedly for their actions’ – but so what?  They’ve not done anything of substance to rectify it.  They’ve not resigned.  They’ve not been fired.  They have simply been shelved until the heat dies down, and will be welcome to return to paid duty soon enough – presumably to do more of the same now that they know it has no real consequence, and that they are victims too…

Ultimately, all they have done is offer words of regret (in truth, they have only offered second-hand words of regret through their superiors; neither one, in any format I am aware, has themself addressed the issue directly).  But words are the problem here.  They’ve already proved that words come far too easy to them.  Both have already shown that they think words and ideas can be ‘borrowed’ and plucked, used and discarded at will.  Words from these two mean nothing.  Words reported by proxy through their superiors mean even less.  That is, and should always be, the consequence of plagiarism.  You rob others of their work, yes, but you also rob your audience of their trust, and yourself of your integrity.  Your work and your name are undone.

Curiously it is an issue that has even emerged in the literary circles of Australia, where one can hardly imagine financial profit to be the primary motivator.  This past month (September) a Newcastle poet named Andrew Slattery – winner of several major Australian poetry prizes over the past three years – was likewise revealed to be a serial plagiariser.  Slattery had just won the Josephine Ulrick poetry prize for 2013 with a verse titled ‘Ransom’, but a quick Google search of the lines and turns of phrase he had employed revealed that the piece was an amalgam of the work of several other poets stitched together like an imagistic Frankenstein’s monster.  In the aftermath, another successful Australian poet, Graham Nunn was also implicated for doing the same.

canyon by andrew slattery

IMAGE: Canyon by Andrew Slattery

A fantastic write-up of the whole affair is offered by Justin Clemens in Overland, ‘”Of borrow’d plumes I take the sin”: Plagiarism and Poetry’, and as he makes note, what is extraordinary is just how ubiquitous and celebrated Slattery and Nunn’s output has been up until this revelation.  Both have won prizes, both have had their work printed widely in respected literary journals such as Meanjin and Best Australian Poems, and both seem so comfortable with their theft that it has gone unamended for years.

For his part, Graham Nunn has attempted to explain away his direct, unattributed and unindicated quotations from other writers  as a form of literary homage; but somewhat contradictorily for a man professing his innocence and poetic license, he has also swiftly taken down all evidence of the poems in which he performed this ‘homage’  from his blog.  It seems strange that if (as he claims) his intent was always to draw attention to these poetic connections with work that he admires, he has suddenly chosen to hide this work away from the world now that those (apparently intended) allusions have finally been illuminated…

But of course, that was never the point.

Pastiche, allusion, quotation, these are all legitimate poetic devices, but (as Clemens likewise observes in his commentary) it is amusing how plagiarists decide to reveal that this is what they were doing all along only after they are caught.  Until then, when they must scramble to retroactively re-write their mission statements, they are content enough to have all of the plaudits for other people’s work go only to them – prizes, publishing, money – buoying their name while the artists from whom they have thanklessly harvested the trappings of their success remain in the dark.

But that has always been the problem with plagiarism – and why it is such an egregious sin for writers.  It reduces words – the application of words; the work of the author that brought them into being – to vapour that can be stolen freely, repurposed and not attributed, claimed and discarded without consequence.  It abuses the power of language, reduces it to an egotistical play-act – the proverbial crow dressed up in another’s feathers – hiding behind the indulgence of a readership that they assume is too ignorant or besotted to bother calling them to account.

The reason that it is unforgivable is not that it is a theft equivalent to driving off in someone’s car; a stolen DVD player can be replaced; the money in a wallet can be payed back.  Plagiarism, in contrast, irreparably debases everyone in its little sphere of influence – victim, reader, and writer.  It belittles the victim’s hard work, insults the reader’s intelligence and trust, and proves how egomaniacally hollow and devoid of individuality the writer has been in thought and practice.  It is narcissism made manifest; and as it their own name that plagiarists are trading on at the expense of all others, then by their very own actions they render it worthless.

That’s why Odysseus – renowned in this world and the next as the greatest teller of tales who ever lived – knew the mighty price of attaching a name to your deeds.  When escaping the Cyclops he said his name was ‘Nobody’, wise enough to know that there is power and danger in taking ownership of your actions.  Indeed, when his pride and ego led him to rashly blurt out his name, he suffered dearly.  And when he finally returned home to find a gaggle of usurping thieves, villains who literally intended to steal his kingly title while growing fat on his property, convinced that he would never know of their imposition, he knew well enough to board up the doors, count his arrows, and in the most pitiless, righteous wrath, reclaim his name.

ChainSawSuit Good Artists Copy by Kris Straub

IMAGE: ‘Good Artists Copy’, chainsawsuit by Kris Straub

* Ali’s piece is also a response to the proliferation of lecherous and tasteless articles on websites that heretofore have purported to offer legitimate cultural and critical substance – articles listing which teenage actresses are ‘hotter’, cataloguing where to find the best full-frontal nudity in film, etc.

Once, We Painted On Cave Walls: The Quest to Draw in DrawQuest

Posted in art, criticism, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by drayfish

or: ‘Is There An App For That?: The Evolution Of Art and DrawQuest

Great Black Bull from the lascaux caves by N Aujoulat 2003

IMAGE: Great Black Bull from Lascaux Caves, photograph by N. Aujoulat

Several millennia ago something unprecedented happened…

(I wasn’t there, but I heard about it from a guy.)

One evening, in a moment of fleeting respite from the onerous, unceasing pursuit for food and safety and shelter, one of humanity’s ancestors sat staring at a cave wall.  Secluded from the instinctual fight-or-flight pressures of the day, lost in a moment of reflective quietude, he or she (let’s split the difference and say ‘s/he’ – I hear that it was a popular name at the time) peered up at this barren rock, watching it flutter and warp as the firelight spilled across its surface, and suddenly, out of nowhere, s/he did something remarkable.  S/he did something that in the history of human existence – up until that very moment – had never been performed.

S/he imagined.

Rather than simply seeing a slab of stone, a nothingness that marked the borders of her/his world*, s/he saw a stampede of horses, a deer, a lone cow.  S/he saw motion and vitality and life, a kinetic vibrancy of being that compelled her/him to action.  And in that moment, seeing all this splendour in her/his mind’s eye, s/he decided to bring these images into being.  The result was cave paintings of staggering delicacy and grace, testaments to the intimate knowledge of the natural world in which this artist was immersed.  I’ve discussed these cave paintings before, noting the way in which these vivid portraits, despite calling to us from the dawn of artistic expression, remain profoundly moving to this day, reminding us of our innate human desire to reflect our world through our own unique experience.

Lambros Malafouris, a researcher in Cognitive Archaeology from  the University of Cambridge, has spoken of this act – or rather, the whole process of human beings taking these tentative steps into the world of artistic expression – as a transformative moment in our cognitive development.  For Malafouris, this prehistoric Art is the herald of every advancement in human cultural, social, and intellectual achievement that has arisen in its wake, because through these images we see evidence of an evolution in both our capacity to engage in more abstract thought, and, ultimately, to reason ourselves into a more complex state of self-awareness as embodied, social beings.

In the article ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’**, Malafouris speaks of the way in which images such as these offered human beings a space in which to explore the action of making meaning itself.  By proving themselves able to depict the idea of an animal or object in a series of artfully crafted lines and shapes, by evoking concepts abstracted from mere representation, human beings were able to expand their thinking beyond simplistically mirroring the physical world, and into the realm of the imagination.  In so doing, they made the image on the rock wall itself an extension of their own evolving mind:

[T]he emergence of the image made possible a new special kind of perception of the world not previously available.  The implication … is that the question to ask about Palaeolithic imagery is not ‘What kind of mind was needed to made those images?’ but instead ‘What kinds of minds are constructed by perceiving those images?’ (p.295).

These early humans were not simply attempting to reflect the world, to create a series of symbols that stood in one to one relation with observable objects (‘This squiggly line equals that horse’s head over there’), they were explorations of concepts, articulations of elements abstracted from direct correspondence.  These signs and symbols, he argues, are therefore not merely evidence that we had intellectually advanced, they actually became part of the process of that advancement.  Human beings, through the act of interpretation and imagination, were detaching themselves from direct experience in order to examine the image itself, and the concepts that this aesthetic object evokes:

‘What I suggest is, that the image makes it possible for the visual apparatus to interrogate itself and thus acquire a sense of perceptual awareness not previously available.’ (p.298)

In a later article, Malafouris speaks of this malleability of the human intellect as a kind of plasticity: ‘We have a plastic mind, which is embedded and inextricably enfolded with a plastic culture.’***  Even more evocatively, he goes on to describe this cognitive evolution as its own artistic work-in-progress:

‘Like a piece of clay, thrown onto the wheel of culture, the human mind and brain is subject to continuous re-shaping, re-wiring, and re-modelling.’ (p.55).

But however one describes it, by projecting ourselves and our imaginations out onto the world – through paint, onto cave walls – our surroundings became our canvas, and therefore became an expansion of our own minds, literally a new environment into which our abstract thought advanced and evolved.

But let’s be honest for a second.  Horses?  Cows?  Resolute hunting parties and surrealist antlers?  Earthen hues and magisterial sprawls?  A delicacy of brushstroke both tender and robust; proud and yet spritely?  Landscapes that capture the graceful and the thunderous in one?  That bring order to the transitory chaos of life through the sculpted stasis of an artist’s representational outpouring?

Pfft.

How Palaeolithic.

After all, a stampeded of unbridled stallions is so 30 millennia ago.  Nowadays we have My Little Pony.  And sure, before the invention of the wheel cows probably did look like majestic, statuesque beasts, radiating a noble, bovine tranquillity, but in the 21st century most cows come squashed between two limp sesame seed buns, discoloured by dry pickles, and served to us by an aggressively vibrant clown.  In fact, your whole theme and subject matter is outdated, guys.  We don’t pay homage to the totemic, unknowable beings that we methodically pursue and devour, any more.  Now we have celebrities.  Sure, okay, we do tend to set our emotional metronomes to every minor fluctuation of these creatures – particularly, it seems, the ones called ‘Bradley Pittington’ and ‘the Miley Cyrus’ – and yes, we do seem to hunt them for sport and scrutinise their every move…

But at least we don’t devour them.  Right?

…Okay, okay.  Shut up.

In any case, you’re out of touch, stupid precursors-of-all-modern-Art-and-culture-with-your-revolutionary-wellsprings-of-imagination.  A bunch of pictures of non-anthropomorphised animals (who cares?) painted on rocks (that’s a good way to need a tetanus shot) with hand-fashioned pigments (what no neons?) in a cave (where there is probably no parking at all)?  Geez.  Try harder next time, grandpa.

Luckily, since our ancestors and their triumphantly evocative advancement into a more imaginative self-awareness is so thoroughly dated, we have DrawQuest.

I first became aware of DrawQuest only a few weeks ago.  I was gifted a second-hand iPad, and like the witless luddite I am, at first had little idea what to do with it.  ‘But where are the small squares with which I press the letters?’ I asked.  ‘Where is the bit with the scroll wheel that I will inevitably knock onto the floor and step on?’  …Okay, this is all hyperbole, but not by much.

Indeed, although it sounds a little ridiculous, I was ignorant enough of its workings to have a brief flicker of wonder.  Here in my hands was this technical marvel (well, it’s first generation and doesn’t even have a functioning camera, but go with me here), suddenly I was peering into a window of colour and light that, with a touch of my finger, could conjure the whole breadth of human history, creativity and inquiry – an object that could near-instantaneously answer my every query, allow me to converse face-to-face with people on the other side of the globe, or show me video of most any kind of cat falling into most any kind of sink.

…So, pretty much the same as any other mass-market computer on sale anywhere – but in tablet form.  And with a touch screen that goes swish when I flick my thumb across it.

Only ten years ago an object like this would have been the stuff of science fiction****, but today it is so commonplace I’ve seen people resting their sodas on the screen for want of a coaster, seen them handed to toddlers to bash on the ground for want of a rattle, seen them hurled through the air at decathlons for want of a discus (okay, I made that last one up).  But still, this utterly remarkable slab of circuitry and wi-fi wizardry has come to represent the dawning of a new artistic age.

So what could I do with it?  What could be worthy?

When Prometheus gifted humanity the treasure of fire it heralded a whole new world order of knowledge and wonder; it represented enlightenment, the capacity to harness and utilise flame, a symbol of self-sufficiency and natural mastery around which all civilisation has blossomed into being…  Since being gifted this iPad – had this magical tablet delivered to me like some boon from the gods – I have somehow managed to leave a handful of passengers stranded in layovers on Pocket Planes (a game it is literally impossible to lose), failed to see what all the fuss is about with Angry Birds (a game I’m fairly certain is about the perils of imperialism …think about it*****), and heard myself squee with a wholly juvenile glee at the overblown nostalgic bombast of Major Mayhem (a game I truly cannot recommend highly enough – particularly as it is completely free).

But then, after a brief sojourn through Draw Something – an asynchronous Pictionary-lite game – I stumbled into DrawQuest

DrawQuest is a free iPad app designed to act as a launching point for creative expression.  Despite the adventurous title, the game is not a platformer or an RPG – it simply, elegantly, offers an opportunity to engage in creative play, providing a space, a canvas, and the opportunity of exhibition, for any and all illustration.

The app gives you a rudimentary, but surprisingly versatile, art supply kit – a pencil, paintbrush, marker, eraser, and a rainbow of colours and shades (with more that unlock relatively effortlessly), and each day presents a new ‘Quest’ – essentially a short prompt that is offered as inspiration, perhaps a picture of an empty  body of water with the question, ‘Who’s swimming?’  Should you wish, this quest can be just as easily ignored, however.  The idea is to draw straight onto the tablet using your fingers (or stylus if you have one), adding to, overwriting, or ignoring the prompt as you see fit, with the invitation to scrap or save whatever you like.

To better explain what I am talking about, I have attached a few of my rather dire offerings to this post, but do check out the finer works of other contributors here

DrawQuest Whos Sitting On The Couch

IMAGE: ‘Who’s Sitting On The Couch?’ by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Help the witch move into her new house

IMAGE: ‘Help The Witch Move Into Her New House’, by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Build a contraption to catch the mouse

IMAGE: ‘Build A Contraption To Catch A Mouse’ by DrawQuest and Me

There are no prizes, no fail-states, no commercials for other products.  There is no shilling for in-app purchases, or attempts to up-sell.  It is simply a safe, supportive gathering of people who love to doodle and to let their minds wander.  Indeed, aside from the opportunity to just play around and be inspired by others, it is that lack of pressure that is so refreshing.  DrawQuest is, on the whole, is by design peaceful and supportive.  You cannot vote down anyone else’s work – you either like it, or move along to something else.  No one is going to shred one other in a snippy comments section.  People can follow your work, and you can follow theirs, or you can just go meandering through the galleries of the most popular piece of the past few days.

Yes, DrawQuest can sadly still be littered with offerings that present no more than hastily scrawled pleas for followers (I truly have no idea why – having people ‘follow’ a stream of constant pleas for following sounds to me like a Sisyphean nightmare), or apologies such as ‘Sorry!  Can’t think of anything to draw!  LOLS!’, bizarrely only posted in pursuit of the game’s almost-arbitrary currency (the only thing it allows you to ‘buy’ is more colours with which to write ‘I can’t think of anything to draw…’, again, rolling a rock up a hill to nowhere).  But dig down beyond these off-handed scribblings and there is a wealth of both extraordinary artistic acuity and playful imagination on display.

People take these daily prompts and sculpt them into some wildly unique responses.  A trigger such as ‘What time is it?’ and the image of a partially rendered clock face, will elicit playful (if slightly predictable) Adventure Time scenes; will inspire small murals of daily life; stick figure vignettes of people racing to work; moments of dreamers lost in reverie; the Grim Reaper on a coffee break; groundhogs tentatively sniffing the air in search of a shadow; literary allusions to The Watchmen and The Time Machine.

And as I scan the depths of this disarmingly innocuous app, returning to it each day to exercise my own now-atrophied drawing ‘skills’ (and yearning for a stylus to replace my clumsy fingertips), I am reminded of those sublime prehistoric images, hidden underground in Lascaux, and more than a little of the cognitive growth described in Malafouris’ theories…

Because there truly is something of the cave wall in these images – and not just in the immediacy with which rock face and iPad are both stroked by humanity’s insistent fingertips.  Sure, one is pigment while the other is pixel; one communicates across the incomprehensible chasm of several millennia, while the other is but electronic vapour, born in an instant and dissolved into the labyrinthine void of the internet; but each is an attempt (however seemingly frivolous and ephemeral the latter may at first appear to be) to communicate a singular vision, to express a unique point of view.  Fundamentally, both – like all artistic expression – are stirred into being from the same elemental desire to reach out beyond the limitations of oneself and connect.

DrawQuest taps into our most elemental creative impulses, and stirs that desire to reach out beyond oneself to try to communicate something individual – even if it has been funnelled through a reverberating chamber of memes and allusions and influences.  Perhaps it’s that same urge that motivates us to pour ourselves into Twitter and facebook and Vine, that fuels the anarchic splendour of the internet itself.  For some it’s a longing to mark our territory, for some a way to connect, for still others, painting themselves onto zeros and ones and dispersing themselves into the air, it is a way to reach even further beyond the limits of their own space, to detach from canvas and paint and environment, free-associating and expanding in the untrammelled joy of creativity.

Once our cave wall was a secluded space, a cherished place, beside the warmth of a hearth fire.  It was dark, and treasured, a space that we grew into, expanded ourselves and our vision of the world through and upon.  Now we project ourselves into the cyber ether.  A mesh of pop culture and self-referential irony, a swirl of influences and stagnations and innovations projected onto the eternally insubstantial.  Once we needed cave walls to give our imagination space to grow upon; now even our walls are imaginary.  Now we create incorporeal images, refracted through the diaspora of an exponentially expanding collective unconscious.

DrawQuest offers a pop culture panoply refracted through the lens of a daily drawing prompt, with no expectation or obligation or risk of censure – just the invitation to dream, and the opportunity to hear the squeak of our plastic minds rubbing up against the endlessly shifting expanse of our metaplastic culture.  It is a multiform cave wall, at once impermanent and preserved, frivolous and profound, exhibitionist and yet profoundly personal.  It is a mass of contradictions, a breeding ground for snarky cynicism and heartfelt earnestness.

It is us, in all our goofy, dreamy splendour, stretching out into the unexplored darkness, compelled to decorate the space we find there, and in so doing, to meet ourselves, evolving into something as yet unknowable.

…Perhaps with the occasional picture of Grumpy Cat chastising Justin Bieber.

DrawQuest What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall

IMAGE: ‘What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall?’ by DrawQuest and Me

* ‘Her/his’ was s/he’s nickname, probably?

** ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’, by Lambros Malifouris.  Image and Imagination: A Global History of Figurative Representation, edited by C. Renfrew & I. Morley (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007, pp. 289-302.) An online version can be found here

*** ‘Metaplasticity and the Human Becoming: Principles of Neuroarcheology’, Journal of Anthropological Sciences Vol.88, 2010, pp.49-72, p.55

**** In particular I’m thinking of that ugly blinking remote control-looking thing that Al used to walk around with in Quantum Leap …although, to be fair, perhaps time travel doesn’t allow for great Wi-Fi.

***** Don’t think about it.

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