What Happened

Recently I read a piece by John Adkins over on a website called Mic. It’s got one hell of a headline, promising as it does to deliver “The untold origins of Gamergate — and the gaming legends who spawned the modern culture of abuse”.

Since I have mentioned the magic word, let us all take a moment to fill ourselves with sorrow and let loose our mighty collective groan. *GROOOOOOOOOAN.* Okay, are we all groaned out? No?

I’m sorry, but I need to talk about this again for a minute. Gamergate—*grooooooan*—is a loose confederation of videogame enthusiasts united by their complicity in (if not outright enjoyment of) hate crimes. They are particularly complicit in hate crimes directed at women—this is their raison d’etre—though in a pinch, any marginalized person will do.

In 2014, when the whole mess first erupted, there was no universally-agreeable noun for describing these people (which is how actor and ‘Gamergater’ Adam Baldwin came to assign them that ridiculous monicker). Today the situation has progressed: We’d recognize them immediately, each heaving a third groan of exhaustion, as members of the alt-right.

Despite what Mic’s headline suggests, the origins of Gamergate are not “untold”; there are many good pieces on the subject. Here, as just one example, is a Liz Ryerson piece telling us all about them. I myself took a stab at it back at the outset, portraying the so-called ‘movement’ as “a rolling cloud of excrement whose form is impossible to discern” (in an enormously-incendiary screed for which I received no backlash whatsoever, in part because harassing a white dude would not make for an especially exciting hate crime).

It is within the headline’s second component, concerning “the gaming legends who spawned the modern culture of abuse”, that we begin our encounter with Adkins’ actual thesis. He argues that, contrary to Ryerson’s more wide-ranging analysis, Gamergate actually has a specific and peculiar point of origin: this old website called oldmanmurray.com, on which soon-to-be-famous game writers Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw made a name for themselves by secreting nuggets of cutting-edge games crit within the sugar pill of casual misogyny.

Now, my first impulse upon reading a headline such as Mic’s is to clear my throat and howl very loudly out my window that “ONE SOLITARY CULT WEB PUBLICATION FROM THE LATE ’90s CANNOT BE THE SECRET ACTUAL CAUSE OF CENTURIES-OLD, CULTURE-WIDE MISOGYNY!”

And yet, I know from my hundreds of twitter-hours that such impulses are fundamentally pointless. We in the world of hot takes don’t pick headlines because we believe them to be accurate; we do it because they rile people up, which is the best way to attract attention to our work (and lemmie tell you, attracting attention to longform game criticism is not easy to do).

If all I did within these paragraphs was complain that the saucy headline atop an arts/culture website was inaccurate, nobody would care. They’d be right not to care. And in any case, despite its goofy headline the actual piece Adkins wrote is pretty good! It presents a fascinating cross-section of interconnected people and events. We see the writers, Faliszek and Wolpaw, at two critical points in their careers: First as a pair of influential internet edgelords, then as lead writers for the Valve Corporation (and at a time when Steam’s bony fingers had just commenced their clasp upon the game distribution biz). We see Roberta Williams, illustrious point-and-click auteur—and, according to Old Man Murray, “pompous fucking bitch”—whose work led the genre from obscurity through industry dominance towards (by Wolpaw and Faliszek’s day) a lengthy spell of obsolescence.

Lastly, of course, we see the rolling shit cloud itself: Gamergate, that spectacular orgy of consumer violence, which in retrospect served as harbinger for the fascist groundswell that currently engulfs America.

Though I love this collection of datapoints Adkins has assembled—especially his analysis of Old Man Murray, which is how I came upon that “pompous bitch” quote—I disagree with the way he connects things. For him, this is about how Williams’ legacy was washed away amidst a tide of Quake-loving, slur-spouting, Old Man Murray-inspired trollishness. This was a degenerative historical process, Adkins argues, by which women like Williams became exiled from the industry: a process that twenty years later would excrete the likes of Gamergate. I, on the other hand, do not believe this to be how history functions.

I am therefore here to reconnect his datapoints in my own fashion: to imagine history in a different way. Yet make no mistake, dear reader: I am not here to present some ‘secret actual cause of Gamergate’ that is fresh and new and salacious. People like Ryerson explained the causes of Gamergate long ago, and I have remained satisfied with their explanations.

Instead I will ask a series of what I believe to be more relevant questions today. I’m going to talk about the origins and motives of ‘liberalism’. I’m going to talk about the 2016 presidential election, and the Democratic Party’s numerous dismal failings. I’m going to talk a little bit about Karl Marx, if you will indulge me. And most importantly I’m going to talk about how we can actually improve the world, and at whom we should take a swing when we set out to discuss the history of violent behaviour.

The first of my questions is:

“Who lost the United States’ most recent presidential election?”

There is a class of people who believe wholeheartedly in the ‘horseshoe model’ of political orientation. This model states that the most radical ‘leftwing’ people must be essentially identical to the most radical ‘rightwing’ people: and more specifically, that both groups must be identically bad.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Like when drawing a two-dimensional map of the world. If you place your homeland in the center—England, let’s say—other places become smaller and more distorted as the paper on which you draw them fails to account for the spherical curvature of the earth. So it is with our ‘horseshoe’ people: they have drawn a map emanating from the present-day status quo, and the further any prospective policy gets from how things work right this moment, the more alien and sinister these policies appear. Better, they believe, to move incrementally if at all; otherwise who can say what awaits us out there in the heart of darkness?

This is a deeply conservative political consciousness, favouring as it does the prevention of any serious change. Yet isn’t that a strange thing to say, given the shape of today’s political landscape? My friends and acquaintances within the ‘horseshoe’ sect tend to identify themselves as liberal, because to them this implies the opposite of conservatism; and ‘conservatism’, meanwhile, remains the battle standard of a faction that just tried to obliterate the US healthcare system within 100 days of taking power. All things considered, that’s not a very conservative course of action.

In an astounding cosmic joke, it was in fact conservative politics that yielded the thing ‘conservatives’ now seek to destroy: Obamacare, that most tepid of steps towards dignity by which lawmakers sought to ‘course-correct’ what they judged to be an essentially functional system. The bill grants millions more people access to life-saving care, which is an indisputable social good, at the cost of some increased taxation on the fortunate. This was not (contrary to what ‘conservatives’ have claimed) an outrageous thing to do. It’s just boilerplate “liberal democracy” stuff: a standard part of the longstanding compromise by which the disfortunate permit the over-fortunate to retain their heads.

Liberal democratic principles have for centuries now defined the political center of America, Canada, England, France and so on. Long life, unfettered personal liberty and the pursuit of private property across generations. These are what we wrested from the monarchs and the church all those years ago; these are the purposes for which our present nation-states were constructed. This is what ‘liberalism’ means; and in countries like mine, it is as omnipresent as carbon dioxide.

The 2016 presidential election, as with every other presidential election, offered two variants on the liberal theme. The ‘conservative’ side, helmed by Donald Trump, set forth its traditional offering: a ‘Jim Crow’ sort of liberalism that enshrines the freedom to exploit anyone with less privilege than oneself (‘privilege’ in this case resulting mostly from slavery but also from other forms of colonialism). This kind of governance is a blood-soaked stain upon the very fabric of humanity, which has made it a perennial favourite amongst voters.

Meanwhile the actually-conservative side, led by Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, offered a different sort of liberalism: they would do nothing whatsoever to benefit their voters in exchange for keeping the Republicans out of office. This is a time-honoured strategy worldwide, renowned both for its seemingly-low risk and for its obvious benefits to powerful donors (for whom basic humanitarian services such as healthcare often prove inconvenient).

Here was Donald Trump, promising to “make America nightmarish again”. All Clinton needed to do, or so the Democrats thought, was assure us that “America is already a nightmare”.

This is how, with our world plummeting towards disaster, the Republicans at least advocated for a change of course (towards abject colonial horror). The Democrats, for their part, presented nothing except liberalism as it presently exists: the big fat center of the horseshoe, the utter absence of change and, by simple extrapolation, a continued plummet towards disaster. They hoped this would be a close enough stand-in for genuine leftwing rhetoric as to obtain for them total political victory (that is, a victory in which they’d win just enough votes to gain power while promising nothing of importance to their constituents). In so doing, they underestimated the importance of hope.

Who, then, can we say were the true losers of this election? It was not the politicians of the Democratic Party, for they’ve lost practically nothing; they remain rich and powerful people living atop a pile of nightmares built to protect them. Partially, perhaps, it was the adherents of the ‘horseshoe’ model—people who assumed that now was the best time, that big changes were ‘impractical’ and that reform was evil in an a priori sense—for these folks now stand holding the crushed remnants of what they judged to be an unassailable worldview (a view towards the supposed ‘end of history’).

Yet the biggest losers, as usual, were those marginalized people who must continue living precariously in a country that dehumanizes them. Their lives will not be as long; their actions will not be as free; their private property will remain meager. Neither variant of liberalism presented in the 2016 election offers hope for these people. It supposes they should simply accept the misfortune into which they were born: that they should even vote for this continued misfortune, as if doing so were a tremendous privilege. It admonishes them to suffer quietly, and to die quietly, which is not something they should do. In this way it is fundamentally duplicitous.

In the election’s aftermath came a cavalcade of bitter hot takes offering ‘the secret actual reason’ why Donald Trump won, or categorizing him as some kind of peculiar anomaly, or seeking some reason why under the official rules he ought to be disqualified. These opinions act as a salve for the horseshoe people’s disillusionment: that is, for a wounded ‘liberal’ consensus that does not recognize its own conservatism. They cannot see how poor an outlook they provide for those trapped within our accelerating spiral of inequality; they cannot see the spiral at all, focused as they are on the center of their map. And it is in the midst of all this disillusionment that we find Adkins’ Gamergate take, which draws its salacious edge from the sensation that things had been proceeding rather nicely before evil leapt upon us from the heart of darkness.

The second question I’m going to ask is:

“What is Hillary Clinton actually made of?”

The Democratic Party has focused a great deal of messaging on its latest presidential figurehead, selecting such slogans as #imwithher and #shepersisted in its quest to shape public opinion. These slogans tend not to concern Clinton the human being, whom we likely won’t get to know on a personal level; we cannot be “with her” as a close friend, or even be in the same room as her most of the time. Instead the messages concern Clinton as a collection of ideas; they enact a ritualistic tango with Republican counter-messages, the goal being to connect her name with certain heroic traits.

They do this because in our society (a liberal and democratic society), successful political campaigns succeed by way of ideas. “Hope and change,” “It’s morning in America,” “States’ Rights” and so on. By contrast, an unsuccessful candidacy is dominated by more personal narratives: having the wrong kind of sex, sweating too much on camera or deleting the wrong emails. A narrative of lofty ideals signals victory, while a narrative about ‘stuff that actually happened’ signals defeat.

In our philosophy, meanwhile, the opposite thing has taken place. In the middle 1800s, a voice like Hegel’s might have suggested that the ideas we have about Hillary Clinton are Hillary Clinton (or rather, that she serves as a sort of vessel for these ideas to propagate across the world). That’s a perspective we call ‘idealism’, and it has been popular amongst oligarchs for all of recorded history.

Later in the 1800s, a voice like Marx’s would have argued the exact opposite thing: that Hillary Clinton is made of flesh and bone. From this perspective—the materialist perspective—people are not mere vessels through which all the ‘important’ stuff emerges (like art, and architecture, and philosophy, and nation states). Marx viewed people in terms of the appendages they possess, and the tools these appendages operate, and the products these tools can construct. The vast majority of people in Marx’s world did not create fine art or participate in the rulership of vast empires; they worked all day using tools they did not own to manufacture products from which they derived nothing except the chance to stay alive for another week. Meanwhile, whoever actually did own the tools (this sense of ‘ownership’ being enabled, of course, by the gathering doctrine of liberalism) was accumulating larger quantities of money than they could even figure out how to spend.

The leisure time some of us now devote to videogames was carved out for us, in the not-so-distant past, by people who internalized Marx’s critique of the society in which he found himself. It was they who struck the compromise between over-fortunate and disfortunate that today seems so fundamental to American life. The ‘working class’, as we now know them, agreed to avoid smashing the tiny minority of oligarchs (I believe Marx dubbed them ‘capitalists’) who’d grown alarmingly rich off of, as just one example, the USA’s slavery-based cotton trade; in return workers would not have to work all day every day, would receive some measure of control over the laws by which their society functioned, and would in this manner gain a small portion of the more ‘ideal’ existence currently enjoyed by families like the Trumps and the Rodhams.

Adkins’ piece adopts a view of the world and its history that I think is fundamentally idealist: a view in which toxic thoughts can spread from the authors of Old Man Murray across a whole population like cholera spreads through a water supply. Yet the materialist view contends that the world is not made of ideas: that the handful of hours people spend on a website are less significant than the life they spend growing up in their hometown, going to school and/or to work, inheriting their parents’ habits/wealth/poverty and so forth. I think Gamergate has more to do with the cotton trade than it does with Old Man Murray; I think it has even more to do with our society’s exploitation of women. This is something on which Faliszek and Wolpaw capitalized via their sexist jokes (not to mention racist jokes, and all the other jokes edgelords make). Yet it is not something they invented, nor were they the first to capitalize on it, nor were they by any stretch the most popular comedians to do so in that time period. They played by the rules of a very old and very unfair game.

What is special about Faliszek and Wolpaw is that they won bigger than most. Their writing at Old Man Murray helped them obtain fairly prestigious jobs at the Valve Corporation, which is a company that massively transformed the nature of labour and leisure within our ever-expanding digital world. Unlike the two former edgelords, Valve is an institution with real power, and real wealth, and the real capacity to enact sprawling changes in the shape of our daily lives. My third question, therefore, concerns the things Valve has and has not done with the transformative power it wields. That question:

“Is Valve Responsible for Gamergate?”

Valve’s official response to Gamergate, as was typical of the big game companies, was to offer no response whatsoever. I would like to say they ‘avoided it like the plague’, though this is not strictly the truth: Someone created a Steam Curators account called ‘Gamergate Recommends’ back in 2014, forging a sort of creative-commercial partnership between the two entities that persists within Valve’s web servers to this very day (though whichever user created this account seems to have abandoned it long ago).

In the age of the internet it’s become common for companies such as Valve to produce ‘services’ such as Steam Curators, with which users can a) commit acts of harassment, b) promote large entertainment brands for free, and c) occasionally help people find games they will like. Typically we are unwilling to hold our businesses accountable for what their users choose to do with these services. Being liberal we recognize the Valve Corporation’s inalienable right to accumulate wealth, and we require them to serve no purpose besides accumulating wealth. So long as they follow the laws of the land (be it America or England or Luxembourg, depending on who offers the best accounting loopholes) they shall remain unfettered by petty conflicts between the game makers from whom they exact royalties and the hate groups to whom they distribute videogames. We do not believe those problems to be Valve’s problems; we believe Valve to be a ‘neutral third party’ in all of this, suggesting that (despite hosting Gamergate logos within its own web servers) it has nothing to do with hate groups whatsoever.

Our society functions beautifully for Valve, which by ‘disrupting’ the game distribution industry has joined the likes of Facebook and Amazon atop the world. Our political systems, being populated by bewildered old men whose employment depends on campaign financing, leave Valve free to ignore harassment entirely; by the time anyone figures out how to get intersectional feminists into power (or anyone in power figures out how the internet even works) the planet will already have been devastated by climate change.

Here, in this liminal space between the emergence of a new technology and the passing of laws to make it just, lies billions upon billions of dollars. If you get to be the one who founded Steam, you become entitled to obscene wealth. You get to disrupt everything and everyone; you get to put mom and pop’s game store (or maybe the U.S. Postal Service) out of business; you get to enjoy tremendous influence that liberal society will never question or withhold.

If you are not the one who created the technology, you must now live at its mercy. It will fill up your environment and insinuate itself into your life; it will dare you ‘not to use it if you don’t like it’, even while suffocating every alternative. And if you happen to be a woman using this technology? Well, maybe Zoe Quinn can help you; because once Gamergate comes around, our most powerful institutions will do nothing except quietly accumulate more wealth. For us, harassment is a horrifying collective action problem that extends into the Steam Community and (like forming workers’ unions) cannot be solved unless we organize thousands upon thousands of free human beings. For Valve, harassment is an inconsequential ‘quirk’ inherent within their bottomless revenue stream, over which one single person retains control but is not obligated (and does not desire) to help. We own the collective action problem; he owns the revenue stream. This is liberal democracy in a nutshell.

It is here, in particular, that the horseshoe model becomes its most ridiculous. On one hand is the liberal tenet that ‘I might not care for a word you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it’; on the other is the notion that everything (including social networks) must by nature be someone’s property. Many applauded Valve’s inaction against ‘Gamergate Recommends’ on the basis of free speech; yet if Valve chose to remove the account, they’d have applauded its right as virtual landlord to treat its property however it wished. There is no way to reconcile this contradiction between ‘speech’ as the extension of free people and ‘speech’ as a commodity. Fortunately Valve does not have to since, again, their prerogative as a business is to accumulate wealth by any legal means.

Of course Valve did not ‘cause’ Gamergate; this is as silly an assertion as the one about Faliszek and Wolpaw. But then, that is not the question I asked. I asked whether Valve was responsible for Gamergate. In our present society there is no difference between these two terms. They each translate to ‘legally liable’, because this is the only thing we ask of a business like Valve; and when we seek legal liability from a corporation, we tend to get whichever result the corporation wants.

If, however, we imagine a different society—a society in which we share responsibility for building a better world—then of course Valve is responsible for Gamergate, as is every member of the videogame scene (but especially the ones who possess enough power to make sweeping changes). This, to me, is the distinction between liberalism and socialism.

In the meantime—while the society we imagine has yet to form—we remain free to criticize injustice where we see it. If Valve wishes to remain silent during a catastrophe like Gamergate—to ‘avoid politics’ so that its revenues do not diminish—then Valve stands on the side of money rather than people. Gordon Freeman, who is Valve’s property after all, must stand with it on the side of money. GLaDOS and Chell and the Weighted Companion Cube must stand on the side of money; every character and service they entreat us to adore must stand against us on the road to a just planet, because each is the private property of an irresponsible and inhuman money accumulation machine.

Do not let anyone distract you by suggesting you should ‘vote with your wallet if you don’t like it’. Fuck your wallet, and fuck voting from the available options. I desire nothing more than responsibility for the welfare of others—from our governments, from our corporations, from our individuals and from anything else to which we’ve entrusted power. It is not unachievable. It is not too much to ask. If there is to be a future for us, then this is how it must look.

Having done all that leg work, I can now approach my final question. It’s the same one every history essay asks and answers. It’s not about ‘causes’, secret or actual or otherwise. It’s about what we can remember, and why we should. This question is:

“What Happened?”

There are three central characters in the story as I’ve told it: The Valve Corporation, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw. Each of these parties, entangled with one another over the years at Old Man Murray and working on Half-Life sequels and via Steam, have benefited from the same set of societal circumstances. They have all ‘played by the rules of the game’, and they each rank amongst the winners.

Wolpaw and Faliszek benefited from our culture’s deeply-ingrained misogyny by performing it within the context of their game criticism. This criticism, in turn, helped earn them jobs at Valve, where they went on to gain continued success while quietly discarding all those negative aspects of their previous performance.

Chet Faliszek came to my city in 2015 to do a talk about Valve’s VR biz. I was there that day, so I can tell you precisely what took place. No one in the audience shouted at him, or demanded he answer for the stuff he used to write. Nobody filled up the front rows with his political opponents in an effort to intimidate him. Nothing like that happened.

This is exactly what we would expect from a VR Talk hosted by Chet Faliszek: A talk about VR. I am happy with this. I think it’s kind to allow artists such as Faliszek escape from their previous art, if this is what they choose.

Yet the problem we now face—what Valve refuses to help us face—is that escape remains available only to individuals who resemble Faliszek and Wolpaw. Zoe Quinn does not get to do a talk at a game conference with confidence she’ll be free from hecklers. She didn’t even do the shit people accused her of doing, and yet under the conditions of our present liberal consensus she’ll face harassment for the foreseeable future. Services like Steam Curators shall continue to commodify this harassment because our society requires them to make money and not to fix problems. If problems flow through their service, or their service adds new dimension to the problems, or even if their service causes a problem—well—then their job is to turn our problems into their money.

Meanwhile it was the forces of ‘disruption’, rather than any kind of intellectual contagion, that swallowed Roberta Williams’ perch atop the adventure game industry in the 1990s. As the machinery of game production expanded, and budgets grew larger, and the industry’s cultural reach circumscribed all the same misogynists who’ve been around for hundreds of years, an organization like Sierra Online started resembling one of those ill-fated mom and pop shops.

Our society—a society of wealth, property and the extraction thereof from every vulnerable person—held its gaze upon the game industry for years, bringing alongside it all the comfort and terror of patriarchy. Everyone from Old Man Murray to Valve to Gamergate got in on the frenzy, as did thousands of other people and organizations. Sometimes they found profit. Other times they found acclaim. Often they did it purely for leisure, that crucial aspect of the liberal democratic compromise which for some of us has come to mean the entire world.

This is the way I prefer to talk about the datapoints Adkins has assembled: not as a direct causal chain linking edgelords to Gamergate, but rather as adjacent subroutines operating within one big, malevolent machine. What we see within this historical cross-section is, in the end, quite a familiar sight: many men climbing higher in society by pushing other people down. We can criticize individuals as we choose, but for me the clearer problem is the social structure they’re climbing. It has a very narrow top, and a very wide bottom. It’s sexist, and it’s racist, and being capitalist it remains content to exploit these other properties endlessly. It’s a winner-take-all game in which the victors are not capable of understanding why they won, or what they could possibly do with their winnings except to accumulate more and more victory points while other people die. It’s stupid, and pointless, and endlessly destructive. Not coincidentally, it shares all the characteristics of Gamergate itself. If you seek to defeat these assholes, you must change the rules of the game.

Are Blockbuster Films Better Without Places?

Recently a veritable ‘divine beast’ of games criticism, Ian Bogost, has in his agitation triggered an avalanche of news pieces leaping to reaffirm (or reassess) the standing of videogames within our larger pantheon of media products. How do videogame stories relate to film stories, in terms of quality and style? Should videogames even have stories? What would it mean to embrace or abandon them? Are we winning the war for entertainment supremacy? And so on, essay after essay, tumbling down off Mount Games Criticism like boulders off Mount Hylia.

These questions present the dual hidden assumptions that a) a ‘war for entertainment supremacy’ exists and b) it’s desirable for videogames to ‘win’ it. Do we seek conquest, perhaps, over the neighbouring empire of movies: to surpass its achievements, to steal its citizens, to seize its territories and plunder its wealth? Well, yeah. But there’s also the aspect of spectator sport. Videogames are the home team! We want there to be a contest, and we feel we’ve got a strong contender.

I don’t really care whether movie stories are better than videogame stories. But there’s one thing I’ll say for certain: videogame CGI is in numerous respects way cooler than film CGI.

This is a more important comparison than you might first think. Just consider, for one moment, the sheer human force involved. Each and every Marvel film requires hundreds and hundreds of animators to work really long hours building CGI sets, characters and effects. A great deal of the film’s budget goes towards that. We’re not talking about some incidental production detail; this work threatens to dominate the entire film-making endeavour. In the end, what does all the labour and expense yield? Artfully-composed moving images of the fictional world of Asgard? Well, okay, that’s amazing! But it would be good if, y’know, we could explore the place a little more while we’re at it. What lies in wait behind those fancy Asgardian pillars we notice in the background of the establishing shot? I bet there’s a treasure chest back there! I would like to go find out.

Videogames,. just like Marvel movies, require hundreds and hundreds of people to work really long hours building virtual worlds (a process we in the biz call “Mario time”). Yet in addition to merely framing our fictional places within camera shots, videogames are also really good at letting people explore them. This permits us to build a very strong sense of place since, after all, we are literally constructing places in which we plan for our players to walk around. Hasn’t it always been very important for works of fiction to provide the sense of a place? It’s a big deal, historically speaking.

Videogames like Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy and (to a lesser extent) Zelda: Breath of the Wild are excellent at providing this ‘sense of place’. You can walk up and touch things. You can climb on things. You can never finish the game because you were too scared to descend into the basement. These are all excellent fictional experiences. And so, as more and more of our creative budgets funnel downward through the blackened, gaping maw of CGI asset production, videogames shall continue receiving greater blessings from said maw than any denizen of the silver screen.

It’s a tremendous irony, don’t you think? After decades spent in rivalry against the film industry and its formidable storytelling capacities, we discover that Hollywood’s great tent-pole blockbusters have spent those same decades fashioning makeshift ‘walking simulators’ out of expensive CGI-driven panning shots.

Would it be better if these movies took Divine Beast Bogost’s advice and simply stopped aspiring to tell us about places? I don’t really think so. They’ve got their own cool, unique thing going on. I think it is perhaps better if we leave them to it.

On Homesickened

I produced this piece for an exhibition called Baby Castles X Arcade Review, in which the famed New York games collective teamed up with my favourite ever games magazine to pair videogames alongside critical essays via the medium of a crazy fucking art installation. AR is now defunct, but you can find its six wonderful issues (including a piece from me!) over at archive.org.

A modern computer display can show you more than 16 million distinct colours. This is nothing short of magical, but by now we’ve come to take such magic for granted. The landscapes we set as our desktop backgrounds look more or less like the ones we see in real life: the same red cliffs, the same blue oceans and the same green leaves.

In 1981 this was not the case. The Atari 2600—a machine designed explicitly for playing videogames—could theoretically show you 128 distinct colours (even though technical restrictions meant you’d see maybe a dozen in any given game). 128 was a lot.

Your parents’ IBM business computer, by contrast, absolutely was not designed for playing videogames. If configured to show only text (which was, after all, its intended purpose) it could display a whopping 16 distinct colours, each carefully selected to provide eye-melting contrast against the others. But if you wanted it to show you graphics—landscapes, characters or really anything else—it could only display about 4.

Of course, game developers could not help themselves. They were going to make videogames for it regardless—hundreds of them, it turned out—and just like musicians can spin pop hits out of only 4 chords, pixel artists could make sprawling fantasy adventures out of only 4 colours.

This is why, in 1981, every desktop computer game was pink.

Homesickened  (which you can play FOR FREE on itch.io) constructs a 3d environment of the sort we’re used to seeing in today’s videogames, but then presents it to us through the filter of IBM’s old cyan-and-magenta colour palette. It has us wander the streets of the sad little town where our protagonist grew up. We gather they moved away as soon as they were able; we gather they are unhappy to have been forced to return. It’s fitting that we should imagine this place as some relic we half-remember from thirty years ago, since for the protagonist that’s precisely what it is.

Homesickened, we immediately notice, is more faithful to its ‘retro’ source material than the vast majority of its contemporaries. Many games strive to look, say, Atari-ish on the surface even as they incorporate a host of modern conveniences: moving more smoothly, using extra colours and so on. Homesickened does the opposite of this. We do not slide smoothly through the space, like the floating camera people we control in today’s shooter games. We move like it’s 1981: One, really, long, and, slow, frame, at, a, time.

This is a very intentional artistic choice. The computer could go two hundred times faster if the game’s author, Snapman, allowed it to. Picture a golden retriever with a milkbone balanced on its nose: That’s how badly the computer wants to speed things up, and training it to do otherwise requires devotion.

At first we are inclined to sympathize with the dog rather than the author. Research tells us that a delay of even one tenth of a second between pressing a button and seeing a response is enough to cause us a sort of physical pain, and Homesickened leans into this hard. It feels dysphoric when our computer refuses to let us take the action we’ve already decided we wish to take; as we watch the frames scan by, one or two per second, a nauseous feeling rises from our gut. The game’s cyan-coloured townspeople await us way off in the distance, inviting us to speak with them. We are impatient to know what they will say: what our new instructions shall be. We feel a little annoyed and a little bored. As players we so seldom want to wait.

Yet eventually we may notice a magic hiding in that space between the frames. It stretches out our sense of time, making it feel like years are passing with every step we take. It makes the town into a discontinuous space, occupying a discontinuous timeline. It mirrors the shape of our memories: distorted and fragmentary.

If we make it past our initial burst of nausea—if we demonstrate the patience and wonder we had for our parent’s old IBM—we discover a patchwork of compelling personal stories. There was a picnic, the protagonist tells us, in which they took food from another family’s plate because they mistakenly believed it was pot luck. They felt this family glare at them (in the way only bad memories can glare); they then ran crying into the woods.

These stories serve to silhouette the reasons why our protagonist moved away rather than attempting to enumerate them outright. Were they hungry because their own family could not afford food? Did social isolation make them fragile against embarrassment? Did this family at the picnic look down on them (or did the protagonist believe this to be the case)? We don’t find out, but we don’t really need to. It is obvious, somehow, why a person would want to leave this place. It is present in the space between the frames: a sickness that pervades everything. And as we tromp back and forth over these sad, slow streets, the computer tells us all we need to know.

Venice, Persia and VIRTUA BLINDS

VIRTUA BLINDS is a vaporware by Daffodil that you can play on itch.io.

We call our blinds ‘Venetian’ for no particularly good reason. We’re pretty sure they were invented in Iran, which is a place we’ve often called ‘Persia’ due to an Ancient Greek mistranslation of its actual name. Playing this game makes me wonder about the history of these two powers. When Leonidas stood at Thermopylae and declared that “Tonight we dine in Hades!” did he foresee he’d be fighting to steal credit from his opponents for the invention of horizontally-slatted windowshades? If we’d shown him the suburbia his wars helped create—thirty million identical houses, all glimpsed lawn to lawn through cracks in Venetian blinds—would he even still have fought?

In Daffodil’s words VIRTUA BLINDS represents “the future of gaming”, which is a conclusion I’m prepared to accept. This is an industry in which our chief signifiers of quality include A) actually-flushing toilets and B) ‘god rays’ scattered everywhere EXCEPT for the inside of our actually-flushing toilets. We are not ‘immersed’—the situation is not ‘realistic’ enough—unless we can flush a toilet in which we didn’t actually pee and view brightly-illuminated dust particles in settings they would not actually illuminate. Why haven’t we been bothered by the absence of actually-slatted blinds, which go up and down and furl and unfurl and are ‘Venetian’? This is what the blinds in VIRTUA BLINDS do, and it is glorious. It sets a new gold standard for immersion and realism. It demands a response from gamers, from developers, from publishers and streamers. Here, it declares, is the future for which Leonidas died. Here, everywhere and always, is the future.

Before The Wheel

One thing you learn after a few years of professional creative work is this: money loves certainty. Not just any kind of certainty, mind you. Not the kind we produce in science labs through decades of careful experiments; not the kind that comes down from the mountain on the lips of old philosophers. It’s the feeling, the sensation of certainty: that wild glow behind a gambling addict’s eyes that compels them to bet their savings on roulette.

This should not be especially surprising; what is creative commerce, after all, if not an exercise in risk? We gamble the money of our financiers (and, often, our own livelihoods) on outcomes no honest person could predict. Will we complete our project on schedule, if indeed we complete it at all? How many people will like the thing we make; how many will pay money for it, tell their friends about it, come back to us for more? How many people will even hear that it exists?

If you are a creative executive—someone tasked with determining how much money to spend on which idea—you must attempt to predict these very outcomes, honestly or otherwise. You sit on a pile of money your bosses ordered you to spend very carefully. Your job, as we’ve established, is to gamble it; yet if you said so out loud you’d be tossed from the building and replaced with whomever had the good sense not to speak. Instead you must convince many rooms full of high-powered biz people (most of whom privately want to strangle each other) that something, anything is a sure thing: that the money they entrust to you will turn like magic into more money, and later into more money still. This is all money ever wants to hear.

What follows is a story about the ways creative people can and cannot be certain. It’s a story of gamblers, crafters, hucksters and true believers. Mostly it’s a story about the age-old gulf between artists and business folk, which only seems to widen as we cram ourselves into smaller and smaller rooms. If we read this story together, and we read it with sympathy, I think we can make it across.

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Fixing The Bugs

In university I’d spend lazy afternoons picking through videogame-related internet forums. It made me feel connected to a community of fellow enthusiasts: helped me digest the latest industry gossip, and develop with grave diligence all my best Videogame Opinions.

People there would often bemoan the presence of ‘bugs’ in the games they purchased. ‘How can the developers get away with this garbage?’ someone would exclaim in mock bewilderment. ‘Do they not bug test their games at all? It’s inexcusable! It’s as if they spent all their time on the graphics, which are shitty anyway,’ and so on. It’s become an undercurrent in videogameland: a wellspring of populist outrage, fit to spice up any review, Let’s Play or livestream.

Back then I would have typed up a furious, factual defence of the game developer I hoped one day to become: first filling up the little ‘quick reply’ box, then copying-and-pasting my growing manuscript into a full-blown Word document. Today, however, I’ve learned these posters’ questions were a sort of rhetorical Trojan Horse. In debating whether some otherwise-perfect game experience has been marred by a shifty behind-the-scenes computer programmer, I’d already accepted two bad assumptions: first that the ‘perfect game experience’ can objectively exist, second that I might purchase that experience in a store. And though the conversation always cloaked itself in fact—this particular game developer, that particular variety of computer glitch—it was never really about facts. Instead it was about feelings, and about status. It was about persuading people that they’d lost something (that, in fact, someone had stolen it from them) when in truth they’d never had it to begin with. It was about all the things advertisers manipulate when they transmute ‘wants’ into ‘needs’.

To understand why videogames contain so many bugs—and why people find this so upsetting—it helps to think about the gradual extermination of all life on the planet Earth.

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The Shoulders of Giants: LensManagers

This is part 1 in a hopefully-ongoing series about videogame programming techniques I’ve acquired over the past several years. Broadly, it’s intended to help you solve common problems you encounter in your daily game development life. Yet rather than merely throwing a github or Asset Store link at you, my goal is to present a comprehensive programming style: how to think about the problem, why to think about it this way, and ultimately how to attack similar problems with valour and grace.

I once read a Gamasutra post describing something called ‘The Curtain Problem’. Here’s the basic idea: you must program a big Broadway-style stage curtain for the videogame you’re creating. You’ll use this curtain firstly as a loading screen: closing it whenever it’s time to unload the previous scene, then reopening it once the new scene has loaded. Yet your level designer is musing about reusing this curtain for dramatic effect at various points during the middle of gameplay. (Your antagonist, it turns out, is an underground R&B idol called ‘The Bleaknd’ who changes outfits often; it would be cool if each outfit swap caused the curtain to close and reopen around him.)

Had you brought this problem to an entry-level programming class, you’d inevitably find yourself staring at a projector slide with the following text on it:

The very first thing universities teach us about object-oriented programming is that this variety of public member access is, for some reason, sinful. Yet it’s difficult to explain to a novice programmer precisely why this is the case. In the land of C# and Unity3d, the first thing your professor would do is show you the ole’ getter & setter pattern:

It’s apparent to the student that this code snippet is functionally identical to the previous one, except that it’s many lines longer and, therefore, much harder to write correctly on the back of the handwritten exam Your professor is preparing to give you. They explain that this technique entitles you to a fresh and steamy mound of OOP shit™, which smells strongly of a thing called ‘encapsulation’ (best remember this one for your first job interview). The two of you soon arrive at something like:

This snippet, unlike the previous one, rises above complete pointlessness. It’s sort of neat that you can tell ‘Stage’ to open or close the curtain without needing to know what CurtainController is or what it’s doing. It’s sort of helpful that CurtainController is inaccessible from outside the Stage, and therefore has only one thing feeding it commands. You could probably reuse CurtainController somewhere else—perhaps as part of some other class—though you’ll probably never need to.

Inevitably, the very next problem you’ll encounter shall concern the sharing of control. What if your antagonist is frenemies with a local rap superstar (notorious, it turns out, for ‘runnin through the Styx with his ghosts’)? What if both characters need to open and close the curtain at arbitrary intervals? What if there were four characters, or six, or twenty?

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The Weeknd In The Wasteland

Originally published on December 4, 2015, available at http://www.unwinnable.com. All rights reserved.

Anyone who reads a lot of criticism must learn to deal with friends who accuse them of ‘over-analyzing’ stuff. Granted, there are people in the world who’d love to hear me expound on the hidden meanings behind The Shining’s conspicuously-placed Calumet Baking Powder cans; many others, however, would find it tedious. I think it’s polite to read the room a bit before opening my mouth.

The Shining is one of those ‘complicated’ films, full of dark corners in which to build dense essays and hour-long YouTube analyses. I like complicated films! But I also appreciate those ‘CliffsNotes’ kinds of films: equally-great works that place their themes right out in the open. You rarely need an essay for those ones. Sometimes all it takes is one sentence. For example: I think the sled in Citizen Kane represents the protagonist’s childhood innocence. It’s not the most exciting thesis, but it’s concise, and it’s relatable, and that’s nice!

In the land of videogame criticism—which is my country of origin—we tend to get the worst of both worlds. While Kane spends its runtime showing us snowglobes and sleds, the time I’ve spent with Fallout 4 consists mostly of digging medical syringes out of garbage cans so I can use them to magically heal bullet wounds. It’s hard to decide what I think the garbage cans represent. I’m pretty sure it’s not my character’s childhood innocence.

The videogame industry would hate for you to ‘over-analyze’ these elements. Its spokespeople would have us believe that said elements don’t mean anything. They’d claim these elements exist simply to gratify: to be fun and exciting, rather than enlightening in any particular way.  Playing a videogame, by this mode of thinking, is essentially like receiving an impersonal blowjob from your computer. You’re there to be stimulated; you don’t much care for the company.

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Kafka In The Friend Zone

In The Friend Zone is a Twine game by me that you can play (for free!) on itch.io.

bookCoverCropped

My work on Friend Zone began with the game’s ending: a sort of prolonged joke riffing on a parable called “Before The Law” by a writer named Franz Kafka. Here are the parable’s opening lines:

Before The Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper, and requests admittance to The Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.”

The man might overpower the doorkeeper if he wanted to, but behind this doorkeeper is another; behind that one is yet another, and so on. Each, if you believe what the doorkeeper says, is more powerful than the last. The man tries for years to talk his way in. He begs, he pleads; he bribes the doorkeeper with everything he owns. Nothing works.

Eventually the man is old and dying, and still he has not seen The Law. Then, as his death approaches, blinding light shoots from the doorway. He experiences an epiphany. All his thoughts and memories coalesce into a single shining question, which he puts forth to the doorkeeper: “Everyone strives to reach The Law,” says the man. “How does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance?”

The doorkeeper tells him that no one else could have passed through this door. This door was made only for him.

I think the parable is about mistaking the subjective for the universal. The man imagined The Law within his own mind, so vividly that he mistook it for something outside himself: something tangible, something real. He further mistook it for something after which everyone strove, when in truth only he could strive after that which only he had imagined. The man desired something to seek, and not to feel alone in seeking it; and so, like a dog chasing its own tail, this man came to chase The Law.

My joke—what would become the conclusion of my Twine game—plays off the very same mistakes, though replacing “The Law” with “The Sex”. Before The Sex sits a casual acquaintance. A man from Reddit comes to this acquaintance and asks to gain admission to The Sex. He believes that as a man he must pursue some universal ideal of manhood: that this is his purpose and birthright, sought by him and all men like him. In truth he is more like a dog; though he hopes chasing tail will bring meaning to his life, the only tail he really chases is his own.

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Form and its Discontents

AR,+Issue+2-33

A year and a half ago I was commissioned to write a piece for a cool new alternative games publication called Arcade Review. I was halfway down a rhetorical spiral that kicked off with my Problem Attic piece; a followup, called Cult of the Peacock, became the first thing I’d ever written to garner more than ten thousand readers. The AR piece was supposed to conclude my little games crit trilogy, solving once and for all the problem of ‘form’, ‘content’ and videogames! (lol.)

I made it five thousand words in before realizing I would never hit my deadline. I then decided to split the thing in two, sending the first part to AR and resolving to work the rest out later. I called this piece “Form and its Discontents”. It goes something like this:

At great cost it is possible to draw players along a trail of breadcrumbs through the labyrinthine structure of a videogame. Yet what beauty will they find in there with their eyes fixed so firmly upon the ground before them? What will they think of you when they step past the final crumb and look up, at last, to discover nothing but an unskippable twenty minute credits screen?

If you read me very often, you might know what became of part two. Yet part one has now become available—free as in gratis—on AR’s website! It’s about how a film form is ‘exposed’ while game form is ‘subterranean’: how popular attitudes around spoilers and consumption do not apply consistently to both media, forcing game critics to approach each one differently. You can find the piece here, alongside all manner of truly excellent words about videogames:

Arcade Review Issue #2