Conversations with John Sharp – Categories and Criticism

Catching up on the lengthy conversation John and I have had! Note this happened before he wrote this post on conferences and marginalized artists, and therefore before my addition onto that. So you will see some of the connective tissue behind these posts and how we contextualize them outside of missives to the community. Feel free to catch up on these conversations if you haven’t yet!

 

Mattie

So, I’m wondering if there just needs to be a critical mass of people who only look at particular non-mainstream games to create another sort of specialist vs populist divide? I mean, it’s a sucky distinction because the specialist stuff tends to get co-opted by institutions and turned elitist, though that might be happening with current popular games? I think about going to school for literature and creative writing, and the very blunt exclusion of ‘genre’ literature unless it was a class specifically dedicated to them, which was rare. Except right now, it seems like popular games are the games being taught and appreciated, and I definitely feel under its thumb, so would collating a different genre of games be the way to come to peace with all this? There is the whole altgames thing, but because it is hyper-inclusive it’s kind of taken over by indie sentiments. Though I guess the main problem is that we don’t really see much at all that reaches that place for us. I mean, there are some I think. For me, the games that tend to move me are some horror games, particular older Playstation JRPGs, and some visual novels, particularly BL (Boy Love aka explicit gay romcom often targeted towards women), that actually get me to really emote, other than some local multiplayer stuff. I guess then, what we need to figure out is, what sort of standard do we need? If it’s something that stirs the imagination, then there are some AAA games that would fall into that for me. If it’s stuff that makes you really reconsider aspects of life or change the way you look at the world, less so.

Don’t you feel, though, that the longevity of these alternative genres requires support in order to exist? I find that movements that carry are ones that find some sort of legitimization and grounding in the area it’s challenging. For instance, look at the difference of how women in games are being supported to combat online harassment and DIY digital games made by queer women. These aren’t comparable causes outside of the fact that they are revolutionary causes, but one gets access, visibility, support, and platforms while the others get much less. Knowing many of the women involved in both struggles, I can see a distinct difference between who has social support within games and who is still struggling to make rent with very few leads on how to advance themselves. This isn’t shitting on the more visible women, they didn’t choose to have what happened to them nor cause people like me to become marginalized. Rather, if the field you’re in doesn’t care enough, you’re going to die out from exhaustion. The problem is posing something like DIY games to ‘save’ video games, though I’m sure I thought that way at the time too. But the main problem is video games as a field and industry, not the movements within it. If people won’t care enough in video games, then you have to go somewhere else where they will. Which is what I plan on doing.

I would say there is more than consumer habits going on with commercial games, or at least, there’s a worthwhile analysis in it all to see what we pair with consumption. Because honestly, we live in a highly consumer-centered culture, it would be silly to think if we just played niche and arthaus games that we would be be free of consumer habits. I mean, the fact that there’s a time when we work and a time when we play is already a consumption-informed habit. Without a doubt, there is a largely uncritical look at how people consume products, however, if you are aware of how you consume something, then does consuming it really become something you can’t avoid? I try to view what looks like fanservice and nostalgia-baiting as I would any other sort of challenging material, integrating it into the rest of the experience in a way that makes the work complicated. Though I am willing to distance myself overall from video games because they aren’t moving in a direction or at a speed I like, I am still human and I still want to engage with this medium in some way that satisfies me because it’ll be around my life forever. So I find this perspective is really important, also to not allow myself to write off how people are consuming games in subversive ways, particularly through things like fanfiction and fanart. I’m still trying to figure this out though!

John

I think there already are many of these specialist/populist divides. The queer games community, for example, is one.  To return where we started, the generation of younger critics, folks like you, Lana Polansky, Zolani Stewart, Kris Ligman or Brendan Keogh. You all have a set of concerns around games, and particular games that you all focus on that creates a separation from other communities or subcultures. The same can be said about the NYC academic-indie scene. And the community around Fantastic Arcade in Austin, and so on. One could argue none of these have achieved a critical mass, and that is likely true, but within the spaces these communities exist, they all hold purchase on attention, and help shape discourse.

How, and if, these subcultures and their points of view become “Canon” is whole other matter. Of your games, why is Mainichi the one people latched onto? Or dys4ia among anna’s work? Or Cow Clicker for Ian Bogost? How did Flow, of all psychological concepts, become the one so tightly clutched in certain circles? All complex questions that are hard to consider clearly while we’re here in the middle of it. But yes, to answer your question, I do think support in many forms is necessary to get new ideas and works into a wider circulation, and to ultimately become sustainable for those making the work. You and anna are two case studies for how this doesn’t always pan out as you might expect. Both of you have games that are widely played, and you both have writing that is often referenced. anna even has two books out in circulation, one of which is often-cited as a canonical text for tracing the path to an alternative to the game industry. Yet you both struggle to establish a sustainable life connected to games. My take on this? Neither of you looked to exploit the footing your work gave you, instead choosing to keep on working. The places where you found footing—conference talks, itch, Patreon, inclusion in game exhibitions, citations in academic courses—these haven’t been the paths to sustainability.

When I think back over the years to people who have rose to moments of notoriety within the game community, few have remained in the limelight for too long. It is an unfortunate analogy, but it makes me think of reality TV. I was watching Project Runway the other night, and Tim Gunn was comforting that episode’s loser by telling them everyone would hear from her again. I thought about it for a moment, and I haven’t ever seen anyone from Project Runway again in any context (beyond reality TV). One reason for this, I think, is the infrastructures that made those designers visible weren’t designed to keep them visible, or to help them establish any sort of sustainable career—not even the winners. The same seems to hold with the infrastructures of games—outside the frameworks of companies and universities, there is little opportunity for people to build something for themselves.

I went to a panel discussion the other night about feminism and labor within the art world. One of the panelists, Silvia Federici, co-founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign. They sought for the world to see that much of the economy operated on the backs of women who cooked, cleaned, raised children and tended to other duties to keep households running while men went to work. Another panelist, Lise Soskolne, started W.A.G.E., which seeks to regular fees paid to artists by non-profits. My sense was Sosklone saw her movement as a descendent of Federici’s in that she and her organization sought to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that much of the non-profit art world relies on uncompensated or poorly compensated labor. The same, of course, can be said about the margins of games. From the clearly for-profit GDC to the more grassroots indieCade to the university and academic presses that publish game studies and game design texts, we see poorly or uncompensated labor as the backbone of many of these enterprises.

On the same panel the other night, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz also spoke. She talked about the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an organization with a forty-year history of collecting and making available writings and documents on the lives of lesbians. Interestingly, the organization operates on funding from within the lesbian community, and relies heavily on volunteers. I was really struck by the contrast between W.A.G.E. and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. One seeks to change the infrastructure, while another chooses to operate for a particular community at a sustainable scale. Of course, LHA requires volunteers with the opportunity to volunteer (Smith-Cruz is a professor at CUNY, for example), but the point remains that it has found a way to remain an active part of its community for decades by going off the non-profit grid, so to speak. Food for thought for the margins of games, no doubt.

Ah, genre. You are right, within academia, it is either ignored or bracketed off into the isolation chamber of a special topic course. Thinking back on my time in taking literature courses in college, we never really talked about genre, only focusing on the canon. Within art history, we talked about it, though our language was different—movement, period, school. That of course is different than “genre fare” like pulp science fiction, animé, horror films or videogames. With games, they haven’t really broken out of commercial genre media, and don’t seem like they will anytime soon.

We are all consumers, it is true, with our work/relax paradigm 100% inside the capitalist consumer ecosystem. For some reason, this sort of thing makes me think about the time when Madonna was in a relationship with the basketball player Dennis Rodman. Madonna would try to compare basketball to dance as a way to elevate its status as something worth serious consideration. It always struck me as a lost cause, in part because, as a basketball player and fan, I had grown used to the dismissive looks from my art world peers whenever my hoops-love came up. But beyond that, it was clear elitist thinking simply wasn’t going to change anytime soon, as its roots are in using consumption to draw lines between classes.

Your point on games remaining part of your life even if you step away from public involvement with them struck me. I suppose I feel the same. The last year or two, I’ve spent more time around social practice art, theater and dance communities. I’m always thinking about them through the lens of games and play, and finding new ways to think about and consider games as a writer and educator (less so as a designer, largely because of my involvement in a number of ongoing projects that don’t leave space for new design projects). So while I still focus on games, I’m much more prone to look outside traditional locations, and to look to the past for play-tinged works and ideas.

That’s it for now, but more will be up soon! Check out John’s stuff, he’s a cool guy!

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