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Another cross-post from my Gamasutra blog – so again it’s about games, and assumes a certain baseline level of interest in/awareness of games. In response to Brian Moriarty’s apology for Ebert (also referenced in my previous post), Jason VandenBerghe makes a good point here that the art of games is present in the gameplay. The problem is he suggests that it’s ONLY in the gameplay, and not in the creation of the thing played. This was my response in his comments, posted here and on my personal blog so that people can respond separately at greater length if they choose.

What about music?

The performance is art.

The instrument is art.

The composition (the music-as-written) is art.

Even the sheet music might be art, especially if it’s handwritten and illuminated.

I agree with [VandenBerghe] that gameplay, especially where exceptional skill and or insight are freely at work, can be art. (And thank you for reinstating it as also expressive.) But that doesn’t mean nothing else in the equation is.

We don’t have the language to describe the poetry of system yet, and we’re not conscious enough of it as a form of poetry. [Poetry here is used in the way justice can be “poetic”; it comes from from the Ancient Greek for “making” and means anything artfully made.] It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; until we start talking about it in these terms (to see what makes sense as much as anything else) we can’t think about it in these terms, and vice versa.

But let’s be clear. If a movie is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful images and sounds (and optionally but usually plot, character, narrative) – a game is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful judgments and decisions and tests-of-skill and random inputs and consequences of all the above, possibly with one person playing it, and possibly as a meeting ground for more than one.

The point is:

although the elements being arranged are different, experienced differently, and appreciated fully only over a longer timescale and possibly in the context of multiple plays of the game,

the basic act is the creative act of arranging meaningful elements to produce an experience or sensation, and/or to express an emotion or idea,

and the basic act is therefore is fundamentally the same in designing and playing games as it is in composing or playing music, or any other artform.

Gameplay can be artful, and whether intended that way can certainly always be judged on that spectrum. Game design – or should we call it game composition? – is always artful. It may be crass art that deals with its subject matter only in the most superficial terms, and I would argue a great many games are; but so is a lot of music and a lot of cinema, and that doesn’t disqualify them from being art. They’re not great art, or what Moriarty calls capital-A “Art”; but they’re still art in exactly the same way movies are, and Ebert’s lack of systems literacy (while hardly blameworthy given the wider cultural context) doesn’t change that at all.

And therefore I’m with Moriarty:

games are art, but really, pretty much anything can be, so who cares about this?;

and games CAN be Art, and not enough are;

and (my corollary) we need to get better at talking about the unique forms of poetry offered by our medium as such, so we can get to the games that are truly, life-changingly great – and maybe even some that tell truths only games can.

This started as a comment responding to Brian Moriarty’s articulate apologium for Ebert, and to a trend in the responses to argue that “whatever anyone says is art is art” – as though Moriarty (and Ebert) were not talking specifically about “great art”, or “Art”, art that epitomises and exemplifies the best of its kind.

It got too long. So I’m posting it as its own blog entry, here and on my Gamasutra blog.

There’s a certain irony in that Moriarty and his populist counterlocutors (e.g. this comment), who are superficially arguing against each other, both ultimately seem to be using popularity as an index of whether or not something is art.

In Moriarty’s case, he’s talking about “great art”, or “Art”, as opposed to the broader category of “art” (which is what his critics are talking about, and can certainly include the commerical, non-challenging “kitsch” Moriarty is explicitly removing from consideration). A lot of commenters seem to miss this crucial distinction – Moriarty will happily admit many games to the category of kitsch. But ultimately even Moriarty’s argument seems to come down to a question of quantity as much as quality – art is about instilling a sense of discovery or rediscovery, but the only way you can tell it’s really good is if it has that effect on enough people.

That’s fair enough, but the problem with this is that, especially in new media, it can be very difficult to get the kind of exposure you need for your work to pass whatever the threshold is of “great art”. So part of the reason games have not yet produced capital-A-Art is simply that they’ve only recently reached mass audiences, and even now they are still not universally experienced the way every other form has been by the time its “great” works were created.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes: directing people’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience. Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty.

Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, almost inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, possibly exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By Moriarty’s definition, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in your comments.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience (Ebert’s key point), “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms rather than interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience), media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect with a wide range of people, “lowest-common-denominator” themes and content (i.e. content that tends towards what Moriarty calls “kitsch”).

…to say nothing of the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition.

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced)

This in turn tends to instil certain presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

Ebert’s logic that player interaction with the game nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art is one such fallacy. Nate Logan’s point about sculpture (and Glenn Storm’s addendum about architecture) are key to understanding why; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal. (Though unlike most games, you actually have to work hard to find any part of the experience which is not extraordinary.)

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth. Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Brathwaite’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or rather conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols. Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters what you might call “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender that literacy, I say: Let’s Play.

Racism, sexism, agism, classism, et cetera – they suck, right?

I would like to propose a law that says that people in a position of privilege have a legal obligation to speak out on behalf of the less-privileged in the same category, or pay a penalty.

So men always have to speak up against misogyny, Caucasians against racism, the middle-class against classism and so on.

I’m particularly looking to get my fellow youngish straight cis white normally-abled middle-class men on side. Whaddaya say, fellas? Every time you hear someone being misogynist, racist, classist, agist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted, you have to speak up or lose a chunk of change?

No? Sounds exhausting? A bit excessive? Why the hell should you have to choose between speaking up or paying up?

Welcome to being on the receiving end. Every time something misogynistic gets said, a woman has to make the choice: fight or lose out. And she might be losing something worse than money. Every racist joke costs its target time and energy, or something else, whether a little peace of mind or self-confidence, a job, their personal safety… And so on; you get the idea. Every time someone is put down for some irrelevant attribute, there’s a choice: fight it or pay.

And if they aren’t around to hear, they don’t even get the choice to fight. They just have to pay, later, when the latent bigotry that’s been instilled and/or reinforced comes into play.

It’s one of the key ways in which the -isms suck. And if you’re at all fair-minded, you have to admit: it shouldn’t be up to the people who are already copping it to have to pay every time. So if you truly believe the -isms are wrong… guess we’ll be hearing from you.

** Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence, jokes about rape and death by overdose.

DISCLAIMER: I am not suggesting this in any way, shape or form. The idea below is raised purely for rhetorical purposes.

[Some context for the non-geeky reader:

In August, the gamer webcomic Penny Arcade (probably the most influential geek/gamer lifestyle icons in the world) posted this comic about the mercenary elements of “heroism” in online games. They received some pretty reasonably-expressed critiques (representative sample linked) about the use of rape for comic effect, and possibly some others.

They posted this follow-up, whose third panel features some of the most blatant straw-manning I’ve ever seen. And yes, I get that it’s meant as a joke, and an aggressive reaffirmation of the fact that they do go to extremes and exaggerate. I’m not dumb. But there’s more to it than they’re admitting… and they were duly called on it.

To which they have responded verbally (bottom post) with the old “there’s worse out there, why make a fuss about this” line (as though they weren’t fuelling the fuss themselves with intentionally inflammatory responses), but also by producing a T-shirt which makes the mythical rape-beasts of the original strip the mascots for a team playing an unspecified sport.]

Setting aside the fact that we know there actually do exist groups of young men who do treat rape as a team sport (and a joke), here’s why making “Dickwolves” sports tops is an appallingly toxic thing to do.

Mike Krahulik (“Gabe”) has spoken openly about the pain and trauma of having a beloved family member die of an overdose of drugs and how deeply it has affected him.

How would he feel if he were to walk into PAX to see large numbers of people in a sports top with the logo of a fictional rival team to the Dickwolves – the “Dead Junkies”? Perhaps a stylised corpse head with a syringe in its eyeball?

Clearly, anyone who did that would be not only a smartarse but a scumbag. After all, it is not fair to push those kinds of buttons simply to make a point – or rather, a gesture – in a different argument (about gender equality and rape culture).

So my question is, how is that different from what Krahulik and Holkins have done to survivors of rape – who are more numerous, and who continue to be vulnerable to repetitions of the trauma? (This would be analogous to mocking dead overdose victims in the presence of a family who have not only already lost one child, but have another whose future is uncertain.)

They have put a term which is now inextricably associated with rape-as-joke on a mass-produced T-shirt – and worse, one which will be widely worn at PAX events (supposedly “welcoming”, “inclusive” geek community events).

True, they have another point they want to make (about their initial remark being dependent for its meaning on rape being an awful thing, and how that context appears to have been lost; and the wider propensity for the internet to miss the point; and also, dicks are funny hee hee hee). Their point is fundamentally flawed: they don’t get to define the lives and contexts of their millions of readers; and they are more than a little arrogant to assert that they shouldn’t have to take into account the undeniable fact that a great many of those people are rape or sexual assault survivors. (We’re really not talking a niche group here; and given the gravity of the trauma, I don’t think it’d matter if we were. There are more rape survivors than war veterans, or families of lynching victims, or relatives of OD deaths, and we wouldn’t treat any of those groups with this kind of casual contempt.)

But even if their point was valid, that still doesn’t justify pressing the trauma button (or the “rape-is-amusing” button) on the thousands if not millions of people who will see these garments during their lifespan. Any more than parading a Team Dead Junkies T-shirt in front of Krahulik and his family would be educational, or worth the yuks.

The irony? You’d find the people objecting to Team Dickwolves (and being dismissed by the PA guys, and abused by their fanbois) up front in the Krahuliks’ defence if you tried anything of the sort.

Trauma isn’t funny. Kind of by definition. Being indifferent to the knowledge that your actions may trigger PTSD in large numbers of people – members of a community you actively build in other ways, and for whom you are both lodestone and touchstone – for the sake of a fleeting kick is a shameful thing to do. (Not to mention creating widespread postive reinforcement for the one-in-sixteen men who will admit to raping as long as you only describe the actions themselves, and don’t actually use the R-word, because hey, it’s all in fun, and everybody’s a little bit shonky when they’re trying to get some, and if you don’t actually get dragged into court it can’t have been THAT bad, right?)

The most disappointing thing for me is that these two guys are perfectly capable of sophisticated nuance and real humanitarianism. They are smart. They know the size of their audience, and they must have some inkling of the percentages of those people who are survivors of this sort of violence. But they can’t do the basic maths to think about the number of survivors whose mood, or day, or mental health they assault; or the numbers of scumbags who will take everything they’ve done – even the first two panels of that second comic – as all part of the joke rapists play on the people they rape: the “we pretend this is bad, but I can do this and get away with it and not even care how you feel, ha ha” joke, with the sports top as the punchline.

You’d really think there’d be a little more distaste for that sort of bullying from the geek crowd.

Or at least a little more intelligence.

We deserve better from two such major icons of geek culture; and if we don’t get it, we need to find better icons.


Key points:

  • Simply reducing emissions is not enough; “if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you don’t just stop digging, you need a ladder”. I.e. we need to reduce greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere and/or reduce global temperature.
  • Waiting for the biosphere to reabsorb the carbon liberated over the past centuries is a matter of further centuries. We need to take counteraction to break the positive feedback loop we are already seeing.
  • Two proposed fixes: dumping crop waste to the ocean floor rather than letting it biodegrade and release carbon back into the stratosphere; and releasing aerosolised sulfur into the atmosphere, initially above the Arctic for testing purposes, in order to reflect solar energy back into space.

Greg Benford is a very smart guy, and I was impressed by his presentation and the ingenuity and efficiency of the two key ameliorative techniques he presented. Many of my reservations were addressed. (Doesn’t dumping crop waste sequester elements other than carbon? Turns out that the particular waste types he’s proposing dumping, particularly corn stalks, don’t have much else in their composition. Doesn’t transporting the waste create more emissions? Not if you use river transport, which efficiently lets gravity do most of the work. Won’t there be effects on seabed biospheres? They’re studying it but it looks like there is little long-term harm. Doesn’t pumping sulfur into the atmosphere increase the risk of toxic/acid rain? Yes, and over decades the pH of the ocean will change, but there are other measures to counteract that… and the breathing space we get will enable us to concentrate on finding other tech to fix the core problem.)

However there are still a hell of a lot of questions there was no time to ask. How much will stratospheric sulfur precipitate, and what effect will that have on ice melt rates? (Is it like salt, which accelerates melting? That would be my assumption.) Are the metal frames which held the bales of sequestered crop waste in the study necessary every time? If not, does their absence change anything?

He was also far, far too acquiescent in the existing economic models that are precisely to blame for the problem. He kept talking about what is “affordable”; one of the key jobs for scientists, in my view, is to debunk the economic models that hold that minerals in the ground and – particularly – trees in a forest have no economic value until they are ripped out and injected into the human production chain. It’s the same mentality that makes a heart attack a hundred-thousand dollar boost to the economy – all that surgery, medication and equipment, isn’t it awesome how much money has to be found! The way to get the infrastructure we need to fix the problem is to ensure that the costs of inaction are accurately included. It isn’t that long ago that economists were seriously, unironically writing that they couldn’t see how a global temperature rise of even several degrees would have any major effect on industry, other than maybe increasing aircon bills in factories a bit, and agriculture would just have to shift specialities to the new climatic realities for their regions, but that wasn’t a big deal, people change crops all the time. Trying to muster resources to deal with the new realities in such a twisted framework is unnecessarily hard work, if it’s possible at all.

I’m also sick of the internal jockeying for who gets to be the heroes in this. Yes, engineering solutions will be indispensible to dealing with the problem. So will political and economic reform to reduce energy waste and excess emissions; there is no way around that either. As I think I mentioned in a post yesterday, greenies are usually pretty OK with technology having some part in dealing with the problem, though they do exhibit a certain wariness about further large-scale interventions. But given the history of humanity’s dealings with the environment, that’s kind of understandable, and unless confronted with absolute intransigence, I regard that as proper scientific scepticism. I’ve yet to see the equivalent of the claims I’ve seen here, that it’s “an engineering problem” (with overtones of that being the only significant part of the problem). I’m not saying that kind of crap never happens – I’m not exactly a central figure in these debates so I’m sure I’ve missed that sort of stuff – but either way it’s not like we can afford to be neglecting any avenue of attack on a problem of this scale and complexity. That means we need mutual encouragement and support, and joint action against the human systems that caused and sustain the problem, not territorial pissing contests. (Excuse the fused metaphor but I think the blend is not inappropriate… aside from the urinary element.)

OK, got to get to bed for tomorrow’s sessions, but the thing that struck me from this session was that there are a lot of false divisions that need to be overcome.

There was one bloke – didn’t catch his name, but he was coming from the science end, and talked about the influence of science fiction on encouraging people into careers in the sciences – who basically slagged off “greenies” and accused them of being incredibly selfish people who thought hugging trees would make everything OK and who ignored science. I have never once met someone who seriously advocated hugging a tree, and I know rather a lot of greenies, all of whom got interested in the topic precisely because of the science. I know there are people out there who match the stereotype, but it’s completely irrelevant and kind of destructive. I suspect it comes from the opposition to things like genetic engineering of food crops; but everyone I know who opposes it does so on historically-informed scientific grounds, by which I mean that they are conscious of how radical human intervention in complex systems can completely derail them – has done so in the past, for instance the ways the Green Revolution of the 70s has directly contributed to degradation of crop soil – and so they are not gung-ho optimistic about how right it’ll all be.

Another example was the tension between human rights and the pressing need for sweeping changes in human systems; reconciling the need to re-engineer our lifestyles with people’s freedoms is a toughie. But in fact the tension isn’t an opposition; human rights violations will only increase as environmental change takes place and competition over resources grows, while ignoring human rights while creating change will only lead to conflict that will slow change at best and (if it grows violent) lead to tremendous destruction.

Another union of contrasts is the solution: science and literature. As pointed out in the session, both require imagination, exploration and publication; and they offer a chance to show how the world might work in sustainable ways. I actually think we need to go beyond that, to try to imagine new forms of heroism and new kinds of solution. Too often heroism is defined as the quality of a particular individual or small group of individuals, whereas what we require here is co-operation on a truly epic scale, of the kind that won World Wars. And the solution here is not only new technologies, but the wisdom to accept voluntary austerities and restraints before they become scarcity and constraint; in other words, not the single stroke that saves the world, but the steadfast, ongoing will to hold ourselves within limits set by reason rather than blindly bloating out to the boundaries of a capacity we know extends well into self-destruction.

It’s possible. It just needs to be imagined loudly enough.

A polite way of saying someone is not only in denial, but has selected their own backside as the inadequate-hiding-place of choice. And is usually talking out their rear end as a result.

You heard it here first!

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I’ve been reading some fabulous commentary on the near-total failure of war games to actually deal with the real experience of war, the way a good war movie does – among my picks:

Who Cheers For War?

Both are nuanced enough to recognise that war and other forms of conflict have a long history in games, and both offer intelligent thought as to why this might be so. But neither offers the most obvious explanation:

Real-time interaction with another human is the simplest source of intellectual challenge (and flow) around.

As for why they are drawn to metaphors of war, or at very least conflict:

Challenge and flow are both enhanced by surprises (and the need to adapt to them), which strongly suggest participants are not completely sharing information. In any human relationship, if information is being systematically withheld, common ground will tend to be eroded. And whenever admiration is available – which is always the case in witnessed challenges – it is very easy for one-upmanship to creep in and create competition where there was none. (Although, countervailingly, a long-standing relationship of competition can in fact form a surprisingly solid common ground itself, and generate mutual admiration.)

And of course the idea that the rules themselves might be something players must join forces to overcome, and win or lose together rather than separately, is a relatively recent realisation – and had to evolve through the pseudo-combat of the RPG, which sort-of-but-not-necessarily-really pitted players against the game master. This is somewhat similar to the idea that humanity might have more important threats in common (disease, the laws of nature in the context of our own ecological recklessness, et cetera… oh and eldritch horrors from beyond time) than each other, a notion which still doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the minds of our leaders (who, to be fair, have had to spend a lot of effort and attention on human enemies to get to that position, so you can see how the habit formed).

So that’s my take on why war is so commonly a theme of games. As for the current trend towards celebrating gore and violence, the previous post gives my thoughts on that.

For those not familiar with the term, game theory is not theory about how to make or consume games, it’s theory of the best way to make decisions in systems where the outcomes are also determined by the decisions of other participants in the field of activity (or other “players” active on the field of “play”). The film A Beautiful Mind includes some introductory examples of game theory, as its protagonist is one of the pioneers of the field, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a boiled-down, binary example of the kind of questions that it can raise.

I have a deep distaste for ultraviolence in any medium. Lacing brutal violence with hilarity and other fun payoffs for its witnesses is problematic enough even in a single work – while the vast majority of people are balanced enough to engage with sufficient detachment to have their fun and walk away, we live in a world which we know to contain unbalanced people who will seek this sort of material out and use it to reinforce their own pathological tendencies.  I question whether the mere entertainment derived from ultraviolence, no matter for how many, is worth the real damage on the psyches of the vulnerable and the risk of actual physical harm should those unbalanced minds collapse completely. Entertainment can be found in so many ways and places that I find it hard to justify serious harm for the sake of any specific instance.

(And catharsis doesn’t apply to a regular indulgence. Catharsis is purification; the original idea was that the audience be purged of the emotions the spectacle – i.e. the Greek tragedy – inspired, that those feelings flare up and fade away. But if people are instead seeking violent spectacles out more and more, their desire to witness brutality is not being exorcised but exercised – and becoming more potent as a result.

The only argument I’ll concede may possibly be true in favour of ultraviolence is that it’s a form of sublimation – by watching or participating in fictional violence, people are relieved of their desire for the real. But I’m very much unconvinced and would want to see solid behavioural research supporting the claim – and what research we’ve seen seems to point the other way, where an effect is reported at all. Links not to hand/to come, but along with the studies showing no long-term effect, there have been studies done that showed that the randomised half of a test group of children exposed to violent entertainments did in fact behave more violently subsequently, compared to both their own prior behaviour and their peers in the control group. The randomisation eliminates self-selection as a possible cause, and the clear sequence indicates the causal relationship that most parents I know report anecdotally. Whether the entertainment instigates violent behaviour, and/or is merely due to the children having a greater sense of license to indulge their own violent tendencies, is of course open to dispute – but of secondary importance. As for the difference between short-term effects and long-term effects, that’s a red herring – unless you’re arguing that repeated short-term behavioural effects will not produce habits if exposure is repeated in the long term, which aside from being dubious plays into the hands of people who claim that violent culture directly and immediately causes violence, and therefore should be censored right now because that will magically stop people being violent.)

Where violent entertainment becomes even more disturbing is when it becomes a selling point, which it indisputably has thanks to the grotesqueries of psycho-and/or-torture-centric horror films, fragfest games, and all the familiar bugbears of the Joe Liebermans of the world and their predecessors.  It’s only a short step, and one we’ve already taken, from something being a selling point to it being something in which people compete to outdo each other, leading to both the rapid escalation of extremity of violence (whether considered as a percentage of total screen time or  in terms of the degree of violence and the toxic emotions expressed thereby), and the tremendous growth in the number of such entertainments we’ve seen over the last decade or two.

Given that we know that human beings both determine their values and decide how to express those values in the real world based on a kind of composite picture of the people around them – not blindly seeking some perceived average, but using that as a basis for judgment, and often completely unconscious of the assumptions and prejudices they incur in the process – a culture which features more and more images of violence with payloads of enjoyment and fun is particularly problematic. It’s not just that it’s arithmetically, or even exponentially, more likely that a mind way down on the troubled end of the bellcurve will find some disturbing content to latch onto as such content is more frequently available. I would also argue that as violence saturates the culture, that has the effect of shifting the curve itself towards the violent end. I recognise that this is a slow process, and is resisted by other forces in human nature and in the wider culture. But as any student of probability will tell you, even small shifts of the bellcurve produce dramatic increases in what was seen as extreme under the old bellcurve, and dramatic decreases at the other end. (Think about the shape of the curve. If you’re right at the edge of the bell, not much fits underneath; but if the bell moves towards you even a little, there’s a marked increase in how much fits underneath, and therefore how often the same thing is occurring.)

The upshot of this is I have been known to take the view that most if not all ultraviolent entertainments – certainly pretty much every one I’ve seen – should never have been made. Even where there is actually some substantial moral point being made, rather than it being essentially a bloody confectionery (and yes, that’s intentionally a revolting image), I have taken the view that to the extent the point could have been made without the shock value it should not have employed such tactics.

This is often taken as an argument for censorship. And to be clear, I am not absolutely opposed to censorship – and neither are you if you believe that gloating images of cruelty and harm to children, or animals, or women, or minority groups, or anyone should be produced for entertainment, even if no actual harm was done in making them. A poster exulting in a photograph of a racially motivated murder, or a film whose entire content was the torture of a child and gleeful comments thereon, would be illegal on the grounds that the acts necessary to make them are clearly crimes… but if you agree with me that such material should be illegal even if the images they contain are cartoons and nobody need be directly hurt in their creation, then you are in favour of censorship, and the question is merely one of where we draw lines.

But I also know that power to censor absolutely (as opposed to restricting access based on impartial, impersonal, and indisputably relevant criteria, such as age restrictions) and with criminal penalty is a very grave one to cede to any government, and increasing the scope of such state control over public discourse is something to avoid if at all possible. I’ve volunteered for Amnesty International for over ten years – so I need no convincing on that point.

As always, I find the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the informed discussions of human rights advocates and scholars to be deeply informative (in both senses – it contains useful data, and it helps shape my conclusions) in navigating the conflicting interests at stake in this question. The key point is the UDHR’s insistence that no human right carries with it the automatic right to violate any other human right, and the principle of proportionality – it forces you to look for the solution that preserves freedom.

So my take on it is this:

  • We need to recognise that competing over deriving fun from goriness, violence and general destructive behaviour – and especially making public declarations that imply such things are fun or otherwise desirable, such as in marketing and promotion – will naturally tend to produce more numerous and more extreme examples, as it becomes a point of competition within the culture.
  • We need to acknowledge that in sufficiently large quantities that clearly has social effects. Society is an aggregate of the people, values, behaviours, actions and pronouncements that comprise it – how exactly that aggregate coheres and combines to produce actual lived outcomes is a complex process, but surely we can all agree that the more of a meme goes in, the more of that same meme is likely to come out (and go back in).
  • To the extent that that influences actual behaviour, and thereby produces violations of people’s rights, it is a bad thing; and given that there is not really a major shortage of ways for humans to have fun, pastimes with such effects can and probably should be moderated or even foregone.
  • We need to recognise that if we as citizens do not want a central authority deciding for us which memes are acceptable, we need to take responsibility for ensuring ourselves that the mix of memes is a constructive one, one which is more likely to produce positive outcomes; and while we can’t ever agree exactly on what constitutes a positive outcome, the framework of human rights that emerged from the global trauma of WWII is by formulation and definition a solid common starting point, and a fine articulation of the common sense understanding that we want to be able to be able to live and speak freely and without fear of harm, and that we want that framework to persist across distance (social, physical and otherwise) and time – for our contemporaries, for our travelling/future selves, for our kids.
  • Those of us who are culture-makers have a particular role to play in this matter, as few-to-many meme-generators. Each of us is a key element in the churning and spawning of memes, and we are also those most directly affected by any move to impose central control on which memes can be created and controlled. We therefore have more responsibility than others, and more at stake than others, in ensuring that the overall cultural mix is good, healthy, honest, and all those other contested but still incredibly important qualities.
  • If we fail to take this responsibility, the responsibility doesn’t go away. Someone has to take it up. And the whole thing about “with great power comes great responsibility”? To the exact same extent that that’s true in any given culture, it’s also true that “with great responsibility comes great power”. That’s pretty much the contract on which government rests – they more or less do what needs to be done, and we more or less let them do what they say they need to do to do it. And the more responsibility we surrender, the more power we surrender, and the more likely that corruption creeps in (because it always goes where the power is) and that tradeoff we made is less and less worth it. (Hmmm… future blog post…)

In other words: if we don’t get on top of this ourselves, we’re opening the door for people who quite possibly understand nothing about culture – and who certainly have less time to spend understanding it – to take over the business of deciding what’s good, healthy, honest, etc.

I’d like to think we’re smarter than to let that happen. But we have to start doing more than just applying social pressure, like the kind of statement this blog entry is making – or this one, which I commend – though that’s important too.

We need to actually make this a serious part of our conversations about the creation of culture – and we need to have concrete and honest data on which to base both those conversations and the creative decisions that individual culture-makers make. To me, this should be central to the business of the industry associations – monitoring and reporting on the nature of the culture being created and consumed, not just so that we can all mindlessly mimic the most obvious traits of whatever sells lots in the hopes of cashing in, but so that we can sit back and consider the bigger picture to which we’re contributing.

And in order to reward that reflective approach, we need to be much more scathing towards the only-more-so rip-off, whether that’s a copy within the medium or crap franchise-related adaptation into another medium, like the recent Sands of Time film, which somehow managed to take a truly ingenious (though sometimes a little undercooked in execution) story and fail to even copy all the good bits. (It may be a sometimes-successful business tactic, though it’s a lot more risky than it feels; but we need to do our best to make sure that unoriginal crap gets no more encouragement than such deserves. Note that this definition of unoriginality emphatically includes material that relies for its power on sensationalist exploitation of violence, and puts it squarely into the same category as the crap, emotionally cheap soap operas that most violent game players or film watchers would quite rightly disdain.)

The harshness of our rejection of lazy creations should increase proportionate to the density of the clone population; cultural weeds need to be treated as such. But note that the disrespect and discouragement should be directed at the work, not the creator; we want to foster good creation, so a smaller pool of creators is not in our interests, and imitation is a valid way to learn.

Similarly, we need to be more vociferous (but still reflective and creative) in our admiration of what genuinely does add to the quality of the meme pool – felicitous new combinations or mutations of existing memes, genuine originality, re-appreciation of a longstanding classic, whatever. Here also avoiding ad hominem comment other than attribution is worthwhile – both because the same creator (and sometimes the same work) may offer both praiseworthy and execrable creations, and because keeping that author/work division culturally strong buffers exceptional creations from the failings of their creators.

Finally, creative professionals need to reassert the all-around benefits of getting a work right before releasing it into the wider culture (and that includes shareholders, since better works do better, and besides – shareholders are part of the culture); this is why Valve Software’s approach to game development is widely and rightly accoladed by the very people it most frustrates.

This combination of better information, an increased culture of creative responsibility, and a reassertion of the value of the creator’s vision (and of creators… Bobby Kotick take note) is the best response to the genuine issue raised (often for entirely cynical reasons) by advocates of centralised vetos of culture.

The good news, as I see repeated again and again in the comments of the culture-makers who most seem to work in this way already, is that striving to take into account a wider scope of considerations when making our creative decisions only increases the rewards. Certainly as a reader/player/audience member having more levels on which to enjoy and engage with a creation deepens my appreciation, which benefits both me and the creators whose works I will more actively seek out and support.

A postscript to those who think this smacks of social engineering

Of course it’s social engineering. The thing is, society is always engineered (and always engineering itself); the question is who benefits from the current engineering, who is doing the engineering, and who misses out on both scores.

What I’m advocating here is decentralised engagement culture in ways that neutralise the critics, as opposed to centrally mandated, compulsory engineering that forces creations into some sort of mould. The difference is total.

What I’m suggesting is a more co-ordinated, coherent sharing of information and perspectives, in order to neutralise the problem the Prisoner’s Dilemma so compellingly illustrates: people acting in what seems like their own rational self-interest without consideration of the bigger picture (and understanding of their own contribution thereto) will almost certainly act sub-optimally, even in terms of that simple self-interest.

The alternative, just not addressing people’s legitimate concerns about shifts in culture and refusing to join the dots between our own work and its peers, doesn’t benefit creators – access to a better understanding of the bigger cultural picture is not going to hurt their work – and it essentially abandons the field to the self-appointed censors, who can be trusted to take the responsibility on themselves and to demand the power that goes with it – which is power over our creations.

So we need to tweak the “rules” – which are constantly shifting anyway – of the creative subculture to reward more originality, reduce incentives for reliance on escalation of emotive (especially violent) content, and help everyone (creators and public) be better informed – and make judgments and decisions accordingly.

“Responsibility” is a word that’s come to mean staidness, boringness even, and at least prudence, caution and duty; it’s certainly not a playful word.

But it actually derives from the idea of being able to respond to something. “With great power comes great responsibility” because you have the ability to respond more meaningfully and effectively to the world around you, to make more of a difference.

And your response will be a better one the more it takes into account the whole picture, the more engaged, nuanced and creative it is.

An engaged, nuanced, creative response? Sounds like play to me. So maybe people who are truly “responsible” are simply people who acknowledge and incorporate the moral dimension to their engagement with, and play in, the world. People who play mindful of all the consequences – who play the wider, larger game.

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