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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.

[Whoops! Hiatus. Life in the way AGAIN. I’ll be finishing the WorldCon thing off… but other stuff will be interspersed.]

Very much the kind of panel one pays to see: smart people with very different views (and starting points) having informed, entertaining conversation.

Interesting tidbits:

  • Doctorow said Disney’s copyright in Steamboat Willie, and therefore Mickey Mouse (who is the reason copyright periods keep getting extended – basically whenever he looks like going public domain money swirls around and when it settles copyright lasts another 10-20 years), is apparently technically invalid because something was done incorrectly at the time! To make matters even more infuriating/interesting, the exact same loophole was exploited by Disney in order to rip off the estate of the guy who created Bambi – a typical example of large corporations using the law both ways.
  • Someone (can’t remember who, sorry) rebutted the standard-license-fee-no-permissions-required model of licensing (a la sheet music) by talking about how the greater ease of access meant that there was effectively little to no practical need to get licensing permission ahead of time, and people conflate something being accessible without a license and not needing to pay for one at all. But this was always the case – a trained muso would know how to transcribe a tune.
  • Doctorow discussed the resistance felt by some recording artists to the shift back to a more performance-based income stream in historical terms – as he has elsewhere – talking about how when recording first came in, musicians (who were live performers at the time) complained that they would be reduced to bureaucratic functionaries playing in a room somewhere. Now some artists are complaining that they are not spectacles and shouldn’t have to caper on demand for pay. There’s a meme hack here, however: Even in the studio, artists still have to perform to make their music, and so they simply sell “tickets” not to a live gig but to their next recording, or studio session, or whatever. I know that there’s a fundamental difference between playing a crowd and recording, but the basic economic fact is the same: you need a certain number of subscribers to make a performance worthwhile, whether it’s a couple of hours with bright lights or months in a room. It removes the speculative element of being able to make a recording and sell the finished work – which means the first works are free until you get enough supporters – but that’s almost always the case anyway.
  • French copyright law apparently gives artists perpetual, inalienable rights in a work – including some say over how it is displayed – apparently to the point that when a statue was removed from a foyer because the owners didn’t like it there, the artist sued them to make them put it back – and won! Interesting to me because the moral rights of the artist have always been the ones I’ve intuitively supported most – though never to that sort of mad extreme.

Not a lot to say about this – most of it was rehashing all the myriad ways that privacy is almost a matter now of hoping people choose not to look too hard, especially as regards any interactions with the network. (And also the dangers of getting mixed up with other people who share your markers – name, address etc.)

The key issue, which was skirted around but never squarely addressed, was that privacy is heavily linked with questions of power differentials. The discussion of how modern privacy was a bit of a joke when you had servants around all the time (though you didn’t, in fact; but certainly the more general point stood, that you just had to assume that there were people who knew stuff about you and trust them not to share it) hinged on this point: the only way to enforce aristocratic privacy was the terrible power the upper class had over their inferiors. But it didn’t actually go there, nor to the critical point that any imbalance of power is exacerbated by differences in knowledge about each other. This is true both as a simple, passive translation of knowledge to power, with oppressors having the apparatus and disposable attention-hours to apply close observation and analysis that the oppressed usually cannot afford – something already seen in East Germany’s Stasi and the accompanying informant network – but more insidiously as an active incentive for corrupt people, those seeking power over their fellows, to find their way into the apparatus of surveillance. This isn’t limited solely to surveillance of course – but because surveillance is not directly harmful in and of itself (though it becomes so merely by being known, let alone by being applied) it is easier to rationalise.

Hope this is clear – doing the last-minute rush before sleep again!

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.

[As seen on graffiti alongside the light rail.]

…Actually, although I agree with the underlying sentiment, no.

Growth is ideally supposed to be an approximation of the prosperity of a nation. And prosperity can continually increase, as technology improves. What’s finite is the raw materials and the capacity of the biosphere (us included) to survive the byproducts (and sometimes products) we’re creating. If we were completely recycling everything we created, including neutralising harmful compounds and reintegrating them back into our production cycles, there is no reason we couldn’t continue to grow indefinitely.

What we can’t continue to do indefinitely is expand our environmental footprint. Or, if you prefer, bloat. The word “growth”, with its connotations of maturation and health, is too important to surrender to the econocrats. (Mind you, it has also come to have connotations of cancer… so, you know, it’s not a single-edged sword either way.)

This all suggests an interesting idea – that when calculating growth, extraction of raw materials should actually be deducted from the total. To the extent that we’ve had to increase our demand and throw things away, we haven’t improved our capacity to use the resources available, we’ve just cheated and used more resources. If we’re measuring growth in economic efficiency, our impact on the natural world should surely decline.

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.

More simply: a rising tide only lifts all boats because water is near impossible to pile up. Water finds its own level, quickly and nearly irresistibly. Money… not so much.

So a society’s prosperity is a function of amount, distribution and fluidity of money relative to need. Volume by itself tells us nothing.

No posts for a while… working on something big. I hope. Anyway…

Here’s a thought experiment to try out:

Make a short list of things that make you angry.

Go through them one at a time, calling each item the “stimulus”. Think about how angrily you behave and how angry you feel in the presence of the stimulus.

Think about the opposite or absence of the stimulus.

Think about how happy, pleased and/or grateful you feel and behave when you’re around that opposite or absence.

Weigh the feelings and behaviour inspired by the stimulus against the happiness, pleasure and gratitude inspired by its opposite and absence.

If you find that stuff triggers anger but its opposite does not trigger happiness/pleasure/gratitude, consider whether you’re being entirely fair to those around you. Especially consider whether you are more likely to show negative or positive behaviour to those close to you, and those subordinate to/dependent on you, if any. (If you start spotting patterns of particular people you are likely to display anger around, don’t assume that they’re to blame for that.)

All of this is even before you ask yourself the question “is this anger justified and proportionate?”

This thought experiment came about because I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s tendency to seek excuses to do their thing. (“If all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail” is another take on this idea.) For some people, possibly because it makes them feel powerful, possibly because they just like the rush, anger is their thing… but anger is not exactly conducive to the kind of reflection that might help people realise that they’re getting angry as much from habit as reason.

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