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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Conversations with Pippin Barr: Time and Performance

Some of you might be noticing that I have an ever-growing interest in performance art and how that intersects with play, a topic that I hope to be pursuing full-time come 2016. So I was excited when Pippin Barr wanted to trade words with me since his The Artist is Present and collaborations with Marina Abramović speak to rarely explored ideas in games. When throwing around ideas about how to approach time in games, Pippin brought up what is going on with ‘felt time,’ and this is how I responded:

Mattie:

I’m super intrigued to hear your thoughts on time and play in relationship to your work with Marina. This is mostly selfish, I’m planning on a more overt combining of play and performance art, so now I’m a sponge for everything performance touches so I can better understand that tradition and where it’s at now. And time is integral to a lot of the works I’m looking at, like the spontaneous and possibly life-long performances of Happenings. Just thinking about some of my more performative ideas, the feeling of time passing, either quickly or slowly, adds weight both to the artists and other participants, especially because many performances are unique and will only happen once. And embodiment! There’s another aspect to it that digital landscapes don’t, because you’re usually untouched by time and wear. Time is always marching on for us here and there is quiet idealism in digital games that promises being forever the same.

This reminds me of when I first started to exhibit Mainichi. People asked me how many playthroughs they needed to go through to play the game. I never knew how to answer this, because I didn’t make it loop forever for convenience. The game is implicitly telling you to always be playing it, and while I know no one is actually going to do that, I feel like that’s an aspect of this game as well. You can opt-out, or you can’t dedicate the time to really understand in this pre-packaged way social justice media is being controlled. This was the same with EAT, which goes on forever, and is a game no one will play because it would take too much time and effort. It’s probably too subtle, but there is an underlying aspect of my work that says people aren’t willing to spend the time to meet me where I’m at.

I guess I think of time in a couple of ways. It seems like where change of any sort happens, if we were to think about this in a dimensions sort of way, where everything is static without some relationship to time. Time shows cause and effect, it also presents the awareness that there was a before and there will be an after, so therefore now exists. I feel performance banks off this nowness, so that once you’re out of it, you contextualize what just happened within a before-you and after-you. Also, there’s a quality of endurance when it comes to time, like patience, suffering, and any sort of withstanding change also comes with time. Which is a strange counter thinking on it.

Taking all that, there’s definitely a relationship between games and performance with the through-line of time. Players are often cited as performers and artists embody play on some levels. I think it’s interesting that you’re focused on felt time and how that manifests, or doesn’t. Isn’t the whole idea of ‘flow’ supposed to suspend the feeling of time? Which is interesting when it comes to works, like The Artist is Present, that purposefully upset the idea of flow, or at least, how we are all trained to flow. What do you think?

Pippin:

Very interested to hear your move toward play/performance. I certainly don’t have a strong background in performance in the sense of actually ‘doing it’ or even reading a lot about it, but working with Marina certainly cemented thinking I’d been doing for a fair while about players (and computers!) as performers and the like. The feeling of time itself passing is so huge in her work, and in the work of other artists.

The other person who springs to mind in this world is Tehching Hsieh, who really takes long-durational performance to a whole other level. We actually planned to have a work by him in the Digital Marina Abramovic Institute (dMAI), Time Clock Piece, in which he punched a punch-card every hour on the hour for a year. It’s an unimaginable act of ‘time’ more than anything else, really, and I thought some of the tensions and relationships to games and digital experiences in general were pretty fascinating. In this case there was a sprite of Hsieh in the digital institute who would perform that action: coming out of a door, punching a card, and going back, every hour on the hour for a year. And naturally this raises questions about the digital Hsieh’s relationship to the work – after all, he’s just digital, he doesn’t care about how long the piece takes to perform, or even think about it at all. When he goes behind the door and it closes, he just stands there until the next hour, like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock. So the way that the digital version works is very interesting to me – in a sense it ‘trivialises’ the performance by making it ‘too easy’ when performed by a computer, but then in another sense it ‘perfects’ it, as the computer will never break from the rules as established, does not have a frail human body that can break down, or emotions that can erupt, etc. The computer strips away the human experience of time and place from the piece and so perhaps even makes the real performance shine more brightly, or in another way.

Your experience with Mainichi feels so typical of a particular kind of approach to game-playing, though it surprises me a bit that you’d get it with a more ‘alternative’ kind of game. I guess I don’t spend enough time around people actually playing games, as I vaguely assume people are used to ‘other’ sorts of games by now. I’ve been reading a bunch of classic game design texts lately, and one of the key features that so many of them exhibit is this strange anxiety that the player might not see everything before quitting. Raph Koster has it in his definition of a ‘good game’ for example as a game which “teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” The idea that a single playing might be just as powerful as the “gotta catch ‘em all” spirit of play is so very rare, for presumably obvious consumer-oriented reasons? And then as you say, we can have games that we ‘always play’ or that never end, and so on as well. There are so many other relationships that can exist between a game, a player, and time.

I’m a big fan of ‘the now’ anyway, and that kind of goes back to Marina’s work. Much of what she does seems to find ‘the now’ inside what we would probably ordinarily call boredom (or extreme endurance). Staring at a single colour for hours, counting rice and sesame for hours, simply sitting for hours, removing distractions, being here now.

Mattie:

My aim in venturing to performance is to bring a little more reality into play, or stress it. Much like how we’re saying games tend to erase or evade time, I want play that emphasizes real affect, puts cause and effect right there in front of you. A sort of counter to games as an escape, or the digital being unreal. Since play is so tangled in the digital for our field, I want to us to engage with bodies and actual material, to give more weight to action, choice, curiosity, exploration. I don’t have a strong background either, I’m hoping my move to New York will get me exposed to a lot of ideas past the stuff I’ve kept in my head for a while. I guess that’s how I relate to time in a design-sense, the remains of things that affected us. Because that’s all the evidence we really have of time really, that something has changed, right? In a way, that’s how we know we affect things, by spending time with them.

There is a ‘perfecting’ quality about digital games, and I’m still thinking about them as co-actors in a performance piece. What’s interesting is how the digital performance almost demands notice, while the non-digital Time Clock Piece does less so. The actual performance was highly confining and we only witness it after the fact through another sort of time lapse. So, I guess really, no one but Tehching actually experienced that performance and the only way to witness or process it is through second-hand documentation. The more it rests in my mind, the more I enjoy the idea of digital representation of a performance, because it provides a different access point to a medium that is intentionally ephemeral. It’s not meant to be packaged and downloaded, much of it advocates against being legible or archived in traditional art spaces. The cuckoo-clock Tehching will never replicate the experience, but maybe it brings another interpretation or angle for people to consider about a performance they’ll never see.

Which brings us around to digital games often not really working out in gallery spaces unless they are specifically made for that sort of environment. Maybe they need to follow that tradition of being an imperfect representation of a passage of time. Fitting angle for Mainichi, given the commodification of ’empathy games’ and such. At first I was frustrated about it not being played ‘right,’ but eventually it became humorous, that exhibitors thought you could just drop my game in a room with a whole bunch of other computers without any real context. It is the passage of time that video games fuck with the most when you’re in a gallery: how long should you be taking, is it polite to hog the seat, what happens if the game needs more time than the building’s operating hours? Then maybe there will need to be secondary, imperfect documentation about playing the game. Like how absurd it feels to have video selections of a game put on loops to represent the whole thing, or how like you had stills from your work presented (I’m remembering that correctly, right?). Maybe we should be making games that intentionally fuck up the gallery experience too?

‘The now’ is very alluring to me. I admit to feeling very separated from the present, meditation, yoga, breathing shit, all that stuff never works with me and it’s really hard for me to keep doing it. I’m always on high-alert for self-preservation or monitoring my safety or at odds with my body, all results of various forms of trauma I’d guess. The now is what I want to access for myself in performance, and I think about that a lot. That in performance, there’s two parts: the phenomenological experience of the artist and the various experiences of those participating/witnessing it. Many of the ideas in the back of my head, that I’m a bit timid about sharing because they feel intimate, but, they are in a way to have me confront what it is I need to exist in the present, and knowledge that what can happen to me in performances is going to differ to what will happen to others involved. I guess for me extreme exposure or vulnerability might be to Marina her boredom or endurance, if I had to draw a pattern through what compels me to pursue performance. How the now stretches or speeds during moments of intimacy.

That’s it for now, I’m really excited to share with you all the rest of what Pippin and I are talking about next time. Until then, check out his work and game ideas!

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Conversations with Lana Polansky: Bodies and Living Art

(Please excuse any weird formatting, I’m posting this from an app while I move)

I’m finding out that I really enjoy exchanges with my friends and many of the people reading them have come up to me to say they are valuable contributions to conversations around games. So I couldn’t resist roping in Lana Polansky, a fellow games critic, to talk about new modes of approaching games. I remember seeing Lana creating a connection on Twitter between games and performance art that I’ve been stewing on lately, and decided to start our conversation asking to expand from there. Enjoy what follows, and definitely look up everything you’re unfamiliar with, all very interesting:

Lana:

You brought up my interest in the Fluxus movement previously but I’ve also been looking at the neo-concretists, the dadaists, some Boalian theatre, poetry especially in terms of performance, net art, video art…. The list is long, and not all of the philosophies necessarily always agree. But in all of these I detect a very important legacy of “play” as an intimate and affective act, a challenge to the supremacy of “authorship”, and a desire to make new technologies empathetic, or at least bridge a dialogue with older ones. It’s therefore strange to me, as you know, that videogames find themselves embedded in an “official history” as the sort of apotheosis of folk and tabletop games, but there isn’t much talk about this whole other history in literature and the fine arts of explicitly interactive, digital, highly playful art. Between the two of us I think we could have a lot to discuss on the role of erotics in play, and in the initiation of artistic dialogue between people and mediated by the textures of objects, environments, social “protocols”, and so on.

I was intrigued by your pieces on expressive games and the museum space and the potential value of “digital patina.” Something that’s often bothered me, particularly as it relates to experimental games and academic art spaces, is this sort of kneejerk insecurity in a lot of academic game spaces to push toward a certain intellectualized idea of “game” which would give the medium a sort of gestalt legitimacy. The other side, which you noted, is the tendency for “installation” game pieces to be weirdly self-deprecating. On the other hand, throughout the 20th century there was a concerted, very serious effort put toward sussing out the “playfulness” of other art forms–hypertext poetry, for example–as a way to integrate the experience of the “spectator” in the piece itself, and therefore make that piece transformative and personal and permanent. There’s a note in the scattershot Fluxus manifesto that calls for the end of “dead art”–art which hangs idle in a museum or on someone’s mantle and where the supremacy of the Artist is left intact. Fluxus artists were really preoccupied with the transient, immediate and reproductive nature of new technologies and treated them as a kind of kaleidoscope through which to view identity and the future of human communications. This might seem kind of at odds with the idea of “digital patina”, which is this illusion of permanence, but from your piece I got the sense that it’s gesturing less toward an affixed, everlasting, idle thing and more toward an influential and dynamic relationship between the object and the individual. 

Experiments of this kind, playing with video technology and communications and even just a rejuvenation of “language” as a tool have been more encouraged outside of games, it seems, than within them. Something therefore seems off. I’ve complained quite a lot about the uneasy relationship between the academic and commercial sides of games, at least at their most public-facing: academia seems to want to see itself reflected in commercial structures and the industry seems to have no trouble cherry-picking whatever scholarship it thinks will be profitable. This is apparent in the way incubator grants are doled out (at least in my country) to aspiring game-makers. This is apparent in the way lab funding works. This is apparent in the fact that most of “academia’s” most recognizable figures happen to have been plucked out of the industry. To make a long story short, the kinds of experimentation I’d really like to see is not very well supported, and the people doing that kind of work find themselves feeling invisiblized and degraded, as you well know. So I find myself reaching out to other art forms and legacies for inspiration. But I don’t really lament this. I think it needs to happen to grow not just games but “play” as an artistic ecosystem. 

I realize I’ve rambled here and I hope that this is at least somewhat coherent but I think my basic points are that games have a much stronger legacy in other participatory and digital art forms than one would initially think, and that ultimately this means there’s a lot more fertile ground to talk about the questions of play, intimacy, erotics, materiality, authorship, interactivity, and all those other facets of games which feel kind of mystified in the general discourse about them. It also means we can tie back games to a whole network of artistic creation, and this can maybe help us to avoid exceptionalizing them and think of them as merely another context for play and these other principles to emerge. I think that can help us understand what games are, what “play” is. 

I know you’re more interested in the act of “play” as it intersects with other kinds of expressions besides games, so perhaps we can stick to discussing this history of “play” as it occurs in these other movements as a distinct question, and all that that implies about what play can do. But perhaps we can also use this as an opportunity to discuss steps that can be made to further reach out to those art spaces where play is happening, and what we can take with us from games as we do so?

Mattie:

I’m super excited to have this conversation with you because you have knowledge in an area I want to learn more about, stuff I’ve been trying to express with the background I have but coming up short outside of sharing some lived experience. I’m hoping to study more about performance art and acquaint myself with various traditions and groups and start trying to create work that shows a synthesis of games and other stuff. Speaking to what you’re describing with play coming out of other fields as sensual, or at least explicitly engaging with erotics, I’ve spent some time really trying to figure out my relationship with games. Like, beyond the cultural stuff, the things and craft itself. I remember just gazing at nothing in particular and just saying “alienated.” I think I felt especially alienated from my body. There’s many layers to it, but I’m hyper-aware of people touching me, or not touching me really, and I’ve become more fully aware that as I present a certain way identity politics-wise and also am constructed into a character through social media, people have stopped touching me in positive ways or my body overall feels isolated from experience. Eventually something like that becomes dull noise in the background of life, but thinking about games brings that feeling back to the front sometimes. Except for rare instances, these experiences are startlingly unintimate, a distance I feel like you’re speaking to when you talk about an intellectualized game and dead art. When I was in a sort of mock debate panel with some other designers, I likened the play experience to something living and the continued efforts of things like games-specific formalism is like dissecting a living thing and wondering why it won’t move anymore after you put it up in a glass case. As an attempt to counteract this tendency, I definitely want to discuss and emphasize erotics more. I’m hoping to also explore erotic, in many senses of that word, art as my method of coping with being in the field I’m in, and also for general pertinent social issues.

Interesting thinking about play challenging authorship. It seems like conventional design has some sort of lead on that, or at least, they stress player-centric design and sway between (their own definitions and values of) games and toys to be used. But I dunno, that doesn’t seem right. I agree with the general idea that conventional games tend to be like work, that player-centricity is more of a personally crafted assembly line and can’t really challenge the authorship of the piece on any level. Until recently, if yet, the idea of ‘play’ has been treated with a bit of scorn, so when things become too free-form, or too at the whims of the player, or there isn’t enough ‘designer presence,’ it’s meaningless or trite or illegible. I feel like my thoughts around ‘death of the player’ is reaching for this freeing of the spectator, or at least breaking down the binary between artist and observer. I try to make the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience, though I don’t have a great many words for this yet. It sprung from my small experiments with food and scent, that no matter what, I have no idea what they are literally feeling since bodies are so different and there’s such tightly woven personal landscapes around those senses, that I can only hope to have any sort of controlled experience if I was in the current culinary industry with my own restaurant following the rules of that culture which I find appallingly inaccessible, among other things. Which is why the art that you’re referencing and the kind I’m starting to get to know seem so appealing, because the aim to break down the line between art and life. I’m currently reading up on Happenings, in particular Allan Kaprow’s “Assemblages, Environments, & Happenings,” and while some things were definitely for that time and place in the 60s, I find the general idea of play and life being one and the same, just at different angles, pretty freeing. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that performance art is the misfit discipline since the artists who end up there tend to visit because they were frustrated by the constraints of their home disciplines. So at least there’s precedent for our actions?

I agree that there is nothing to lament about reaching outside of games for the experimental and critical ecosystem that we need in order to progress. This is what I concluded when I finally figured out what it meant when I said “I’m leaving games.” For years I knocked my head against various institutions and nothing budged, and eventually when I stopped, let the concussion subside, I realized that even if I did get in, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that actually makes me feel good. I’m happy to leave the commercial games space as it is and try to find something more amendable to me and my ideas, though, I don’t want to give up on play and the people hard at work interrogating and living it. Like you’re getting to, I’ve found myself tasked with figuring out how to appeal to other fields as someone ‘from games’ and what that really means, especially since many see ‘from games’ as attached to the commercial culture of the medium. I do find myself aching for a legacy, I like that you used that word. I guess I got wrapped up in iconoclasm that I didn’t realize why I left lost and hopeless was because I didn’t think there were people who understand where my sensibilities lied, and coming upon the kind of art we’re starting to discuss has made me feel a little better. I’m a little anxious because a lot of the thoughts I have suddenly feel well-trodden but I wonder if our language or focus on games have made us more attuned to the dynamic nature of play and how play environments can be purposefully created. Also, when I think of ‘play,’ I try to think of many instances in which it is used, so when I came to games, the first instance of play that came to my mind was gender play, or playing with gender, and in a similar way, the ‘play’ involved with managing sexual identities. I always thought it curious, especially when we are constantly using the word ‘systemic,’ that something like gender itself wasn’t considered for a play environment, because people are literally playing with gender 24/7, among other things. Also with queerness, which has a lot of performative wordage around it from queer of color critique like by José Esteban Muñoz. But I’ve come to find that even non-conventional designers don’t think of this because there’s this sentiment that play is always voluntary and has no real consequences in your life. And it’s from the angle of upending that assumption that I feel like our particular segue might lie, giving interactions erotics and life, or at least emphasizing that.

Lana:

There are so many directions my mind wants to go in after reading this, but one thing I think I can confirm is that there is a precedent for those of us who found performance art after feeling dissatisfied with our own respective fields. For myself, I started with literature and, having been moved by the expressive/affective potential in games, got sort of seduced into that world. But obviously I’ve been feeling something is missing, and like you I’ve made myself concussive trying to fill one conceptual lacuna after another, and to modest avail. 

It’s become so important to me to look elsewhere for the same kind of inspiration, particularly in terms of looking at how performance, participation and play (if I were writing a Gama development post I might call them the “3 Ps”) have been used in art to suggest more fundamental truths. Recently I’ve gone back a bit to my literary roots and have found some profound inspiration in looking at poetry–particularly poetry which is meant to be performed–and I can go into more detail on that if you want. But if we’re going to focus our attention on avant-garde participatory and installation artists and what that means for us in our respective efforts, then I think there definitely is more for us there than in any of the “traditional” channels of games culture. (It feels strange to say that, considering the, again, long legacy of these other art forms as compared to virtual games. But I guess what we’re really discussing here isn’t tradition so much as a weakening purity derived from insularity.) 

Like you, I’m coming to this world of participatory art from at least two degrees of separation. I majored in liberal and literary arts but never fine arts (naturally…) and immediately moved to games; my interest in these types of art grew out of an appetite to see works which grapple with ideas of the body, systems, performativity, mutual creation and ownership and other existential questions. Of course games really helped me refine some of the questions around these desires and in some fleeting or obscure areas of game development I’ve found works which speak to them (and I believe in doing more to support such works!). But I needed things which addressed those concerns more directly, from which I could learn more about creative participation as a sort of living metaphor. When you talk about “the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience”, I think of the latter as represented more in things like Kate Gilmore’s Through the Claw (2011). In short, Gilmore invited women into the very sterile-looking Pace Gallery to rub brown clay all over the floor and walls. Of course, in these “living” pieces there is a sense of a liminal space, and so there’s still this very particular distinction being made between “art” and “life” in the sense that “art” is this conscious, designed moment which is sort of a dialogue, or at least a statement. It’s this attempt to make some sense out of the chaos of life and at least in that respect I have some sympathy for a distinction to be made. But I think it’s worth keeping in mind that life is full of little distinctions, little moments which we compartmentalize according to behaviour or presentation, in terms of what’s appropriate or expected for the situation. And sometimes our needs to exist within certain moments don’t coincide with expectations, and the artificiality of social protocol becomes obvious and even threatening, especially, as you’ve pointed to in your email, for the individual who doesn’t fit inside the presumed “magic circle.” 

I admit I can only know so much of the alienation you describe, but I definitely understand what you mean when you say that videogames in particular have, for all our touting of their potential for “empathy”, not lived up to the kinds of intimacy and sensuality I think we both long for in our art. (Although as an exception to the problem of game designers not doing much to account for “play” in everyday life, I’m pretty impressed with how Squinky is able to make play out of “mundane” experiences, and to make those things feel alive and rich with nuance and meaning, even with fairly simple framing and ludic devices.) So, I definitely get where you’re coming from when it comes to intimacy and at least understanding, if not empathy, from play experiences–where we’re creating the conditions for such a dialogue to emerge rather than enforcing a strict and static authorship. I suppose it’s not so much about controlling the subjective experience as much as guiding it, where meaning is something that manifests as a confluence of different people acting together, individually but under certain simple constraints. I don’t know if doing this can fully break down the barrier between “play” which is consciously done for expressivity’s sake and “life”, but it at least can point to how we “play” in our everyday lives as a way to construct a sense of ourselves and others, as actors working within the constraints of social, political and economic systems. And it can provide the avenue for change. 

And there is so much precedent for this! I think much of the theorizing done by “culture industry” philosophers (Benjamin, Adorno) speaks to some of that relationship, especially when it comes to the idea of art as reproducible, and therefore no longer “dead”–and what that may imply! But I’m torn here: because reproducibility under capitalism doesn’t really create those “living metaphors” as much as it just kind of creates a hyperrealism where idealized versions of the player’s ego are sold back to them as commodities by appealing to the id–that personally crafted assembly line you mentioned. It’s what I was trying to get to in my essay “FUCK THE PLAYER“: I think player-centric design is fundamentally a lie, and it’s one that “living art” might be able to reconstruct and therefore make glaringly obvious. 

I feel as though “living art” (I think I’m going to keep that as my preferred umbrella term from now on, although I guess it’s sort of indirectly pejorative of other art forms. Oh well.) is forced to contend with the living world, if only because it can only exist in the living world. It’s for this reason that the Situationists moved on from just challenging artistic creation to more direct political activism in the late ’60s, trying to re-imagine a (largely Marxist) alterity through creative, deeply involved, participatory re-imagining of daily life. Actually–while we’re here, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote a treatise called “The Revolution of Everyday Life”, published in 1967, which may be relevant to your interests. This is from the first chapter: 

“Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need which everyone feels to walk in step with the march of history. But there are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies. Even a philosopher cannot ignore it, for all his self-contempt; and he learns this self-contempt from his consolation, philosophy. After somersaulting onto his own shoulders to shout his message to the world from a greater height, the philosopher finishes by seeing the world inside out; and everything in it goes askew, upside down, to persuade him that he is standing upright. But he cannot escape his own delirium; and refusing to admit it simply makes it more uncomfortable.”

I might replace the word “philosopher” with “formalist”, but I do want to clarify that I’m not against conceptualizing about form as such. I’m guilty of it myself. But what I do want to avoid is a certain unnecessary rigidity which serves less the form and more the people making grand assertions about the form’s legitimacy. But I digress…

It’s not just the Frankfurt scholars or the Situationists. One of the leading figures of the Fluxus movement, Joseph Beuys, was also invested in the transformative potential of living art. A short bio on Beuys describes his work as “process-oriented, or time-based ‘action’ art, the performance of which suggested how art may exercise a healing effect (on both the artist and the audience) when it takes up psychological, social, and/or political subjects.” But perhaps most salient to us is Beuys’s concept of the “social sculpture”, in which all of life itself provided the material for art to emerge. For Beuys, this famously took the form of a “Documenta” piece in which he placed on the ground a bunch of basalt stones in the shape of an arrow pointing toward an oak tree in Kassel, Germany in 1982. His stipulation was that for every oak tree planted there, a stone would be removed, and many lived up to the promise: between ’82 and ’87 over 7,000 oak trees were planted in Kassel.

There are still so many more examples of this kind of living art having subtle, but nonetheless very real impacts on not just their creators and subjects but on society and the environment. It’s exciting to me because it means that this stuff isn’t just stuffy and sterile and meant to be behind glass in a museum. It’s less of an autopsy and more like trying to view a subatomic particle: just talking about it makes it change.

I think of hip hop. I think of the punk movement. I think of cyber-revolutionaries, for better or worse. And maybe I’m just being sentimental but I think virtual games still have this potential to treat play-life matters in more enriched and enriching ways, if only that were so valued. But I’ve gone on longer than I had meant to. 

But you’re definitely right when you say there is a precedent. There is, there is, there is. 

Thanks for reading! Please check out Lana’s work at Sufficiently Human and support her on Patreon!

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Letters with John Sharp: Discipline and Pastime

This is a continuation of my letter series with John Sharp! Read the first post here if you missed it!

 

Mattie:

It’s super possible that a lot of the friction that we’re discussing might come from the fact that there’s so many disciplines at work here but we don’t treat games or its discourse inter-/multi-disciplinarily enough. This is probably because people in games feel such a strong wanting for a codified theory that governs games and there is a struggle for what that is going to look like. Personally, I do feel a bit of desperation to make sure that certain things don’t become completely standardized or at least not without a lot of resistance so that it’s noted it’s contested. Maybe there’s an assumption that because we’re all talking about games, we’re supposed to conform to a main praxis and some people might have decided what that praxis is already. I do think most people ideologically agree that there should multiple perspectives present but there’s such a pressure to crystalize a games canon that creates power struggles between both disciplines and generations.

Really, I don’t think we even know what we we’re from. I’m only beginning to find the traditions that match my sensibilities and forward my thoughts, or basically finding the words for the thoughts I want to communicate. As well, all of us younger critics and designers aren’t completely united nor cohesive, and don’t have a lot of intra-discourse anymore. Something is definitely going on, and maybe on-going conflict is going to force this reaction to solidify further, but I’m not really sure, it’s definitely going to turn more into a trend than a movement I think.

All of this is to say that sometimes we, I, can be insolent brats lashing out at whatever comes near, but I don’t think it’s because we’re a bad group of people rather just a product of our timing and place. It sucks to feel trapped and no real clear path of advancement that other young thinkers tend to have.

Which is why these alternate forms of dialogue can be useful, because there needs to be a place for at least me to express ideas in a way that isn’t capped at a 1000-word unique thought-pill and I can develop them over time. If I get into academia then maybe I’ll be able to join that kind of writing but for the most part I can’t have ‘official’ conversations with my peers who are academic outside of that. The old ways of bloggers who frequently replied to each other’s posts seems to be mostly gone, and I know I could use more rigorous conversations around games.

I think your, and other’s, experience and company is definitely in need, we’ve just created a thorny dynamic where typical attempts at sharing knowledge or experience reads as invasive or rebelism. We have more foundational work to do before we can get to that now, like just literally demonstrating that we understand each other so all other attempts at communication read as earnest. Which will take time and effort! I feel like an easy way to disarm a younger thinker and to simply know their work and display that understanding/curiosity/appreciation without needing it to be in an argument. Which doesn’t mean there can’t be debates, just that there needs to be casual conversations to contrast arguments so threat levels go down. I personally really want to belong to communities, just on my terms, as a person and not a representative. I also want to feel like I’m contributing and influencing as much as I’m tasked to learn.

I’m actually so mad at Desert Golfing. Or at least, at all my friends who like that game. Everyone kept going on and on about it so I thought there was some zany Frog Fractions twist and when none came I was pretty angry. It just feels like this gulf I have with general games academia/criticism, that I can’t connect to these ‘pastime’ games. It might be where a lot of my resentment comes in regards to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘instrumentalization,’ that there’s this over-focus on things that are ‘just games’ and trying to lift them up. But is connecting to expressive games really a preference? Maybe I’m just being elitist.

That hotel tour sounds so up my alley, I love it particularly because it separates handing down an experience to consume from giving people the opportunity to just experience, and take from their context whatever is relevant. I feel you on getting a bitter taste about superficial practices of ‘object-oriented storytelling’ (how tech sounding) because that game design practice doesn’t reference life and tie the person experiencing to it through any sort of contextualization. Games tend to be obsessed with themselves, they reference themselves, even within the same game, where they expect you to contextualize other game experiences between themselves. A part of me wrings my hands over how nostalgia is used as a substitute for having internal references to life experiences. How do you create with these sorts of games outside of a tool-master relationship? You didn’t ‘master’ that hotel, the context in which that experience existed produce integration and connection.

 

John:

I agree completely about disciplines. There are as many approaches to games as their are criteria and methodologies with which games are evaluated. I suppose there might be some people that want a unified theory of game (#gg, Jane McGonigal, Valve), but I’m not sure that is the driving force in academia. If you follow the perennial conversation within and around DiGRA, for example, there is an acknowledgement that there are a good dozen disciplines that feed into “game studies,” each with their own traditions around framing subjects, methodologies and expected outcomes. DiGRA always makes me see the splinters, not the whole—which is largely a good thing.

Within industry (not my favorite term, but that’s a topic for another email), I suppose there is a more unified approach—selling units and making money. But the thing about the commercial industry is it is almost completely unconcerned about its legacy, its place in culture as a whole. And so it won’t really get a say in how this all plays out.

As academics and critics, we are tasked with trying to make sense of things, even if that sense-making is simply to point out the impossibility of a unified field theory of games. Two MIT Press series come to mind around this: Platform Studies and Playful Thinking (admission: I have a book in the later series, and have a proposal that I’ve sent to the former). Bogost and Montfort have a particular vantage on the materiality of videogames and their platforms that is certainly one formalist/materialist/technological approach to games. On the other hand, there is Juul, Long and Uricchio’s Playful Thinking Series, which has a “games plus X” approach. This leads to a more heterogeneous take on games: games and play, games and art, games and chance, games and failure (so far). As a result, Platform Studies feels like the more dominant perspective, if only because there is a unified underpinning to the books in the series. All of which is to say that the “unified theory” approaches to games end up feeling more present if only because they are simpler to communicate, and have the force of repetition behind them.  

The term indie is a great object lesson in the messiness that lies just under the surface of any attempts to codify. Isn’t indie nothing more than a marketing category like “college rock” and “independent film”? It surely isn’t a representative term for much else anymore (sorry, indieCade). In the early days of my involvement with indieCade, I naively thought we were in fact bringing most of the indie world together for a weekend. But it quickly became clear that if we looked closer, there were more people that fit the indie definition not there than were there. And now, the conference portion of indieCade is a kind of glorious, splintered mess with a group of people that draw on a good dozen scenes, with that many more left out. But as things get codified in the press, in social media, more gets read into who is there, and their status as representatives of the many branches of games on the edges of “industry.” And suddenly things aren’t what they were—a mess–but instead an infrastructure, a power base, haves and have-nots.

So yeah, there is a tension between the tidiness of history and scholarship and the messiness of reality. Maybe this is what you hope to hold onto—the acknowledgement that everything is kind of a mess, and that this is ok?

I couldn’t agree more with your wish to be part of communities, so long as you are welcomed for who you are. And likewise, feeling like there is a balance between learning and contributing. That will require we all put our guard down in various ways, which is hard, of course, and not always the safest thing to do. For my part, I pretty much have given up on using Twitter as a space for real dialog. I feel like a lot of folks open up Twitter and immediately assume a combat stance. It just makes for unnecessarily contrarian conversation (if you can call it conversation).

I have to admit I laughed when reading you were mad at Desert Golfing. Don’t hate Desert Golfing, Mattie, hate the desert golfers. I wonder if Desert Golfing and Drop7 and other similar games are part of the cult of flow? (I noticed Lana Polansky went after flow recently in an essay.) I see flow as one of those ideas trying to legitimize games as a pastime, even if that wasn’t forefront in Csikszentmihalyi’s thinking. I’m certainly guilty of this (see my ode to Drop7 in Well Played awhile back and aspects of Works of Game, too).

I’m not sure you are being elitist, I just think you bring a different set of values and aesthetics to games, and the “games are 6,000 years old, and part of the fabric of humanity” schtick just doesn’t resonate with you. Which is good, I think. There are enough people defending the honor of games already.

Your thoughts on the hotel tour made me think back to my experience with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. I remember distinctly walking into the space, and having my videogame brain in gear. I walked up to the books and objects and closely examined them, looking for details about the story. Fairly quickly, I realized it was all “window dressing” and that its only real meaning was its appearance, and the way it all added up to an atmosphere like a stylized film set. Once I got that, I had a much better experience by following the actors around the space.

Sleep No More is much closer to a slick 3D game than my experience on the tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel. Yet Sleep No More and, say, Gone Home, are more egalitarian experiences than the tour, if for no other reason than their reproducibility and extensibility. It also raises questions of packaged experiences and participatory experiences.

I’m curious, what’s a game you’ve played recently that you enjoyed? I have to say it has been quite some time since I played anything that really caught my eye.

 

Mattie:

I admit to not having a good idea of games academia as a whole. I’ve kind of been thrust in a weird between-worlds positions, where because I did learn some critical theory in my undergrad, and I’ve learned to apply it to both art and the design process, I’m labeled as academic. I think most people consider me an academic! But I’m not? At least not yet, so I shouldn’t be so forthright about naming the general atmosphere of games academia. I guess I’m anticipating my move to New York and since I’m the most familiar with school-based designers there, they make up the majority of what I think of when we’re talking about designer-academics. Also some others, like designers that have prominent, Theory of Everything type books. I’m even somewhat distant from academics my age because they are writing about my work, so there’s a sort of distance and awareness that I’m operating on more the artist level than academic kind. Plus I have so much reading to do so I can at least pretend I fully grasp the accepted game canon. But yes, I imagine I might get into debates once I move, which I welcome.

I’ve been thinking a lot about re-centering our field from a games medium to a play medium, which I’m sure it’s not really a novel idea, but heavily resisted. I’m concerned about object-centrality and using games as experience dispensers instead of thinking about our relationship to fluid, more slippery notions of experience that are more wholly affective. That’s how the art-world seems to be approaching games, like games are in the wings of museums where they put furniture. Which is shitty for the furniture too! I don’t get the design/art divide, I never have. Why are these things kept so separated? Why MUST games be designed objects? Just feels creepy.

‘Indie’ definitely felt like a commercial/industrial reaction rather than an aesthetic one. Notgames is a more arts-engaged label even though it also contains a reaction to industry, it had a strong, purposeful sensibility, while if indie has one, it seems incidental and easily mobilized by consumerism. That’s probably unfair to indies, though I also have an issue with ‘altgames.’ It seems to me much like how indie formed together, just in a different time and place. It feels more like a reaction to industry than having its own aesthetic argument, though I don’t really mind basically a weird twitter indie I guess. I find it not different enough, a lot of people who were indie are now altgames, because altgames doesn’t really have a strong enough stance of values outside of a reaction to indies’ reaction to industry.

A lot of my writing in the past year has been about mess. It might be because my life is an utter mess, that life just doesn’t really make sense and my trajectory is incredibly unclear. I want to feel comforted that I’m not just a fuck up but everything really is just a goddamned mess. But I want to bring that to our perspective on play as well, maybe that’s why formalism gives me the creeps. It’s like a worldview that wants to kill everything and cut it all up and reassemble the mess into something legible to them but they can’t understand why it’s dead. The Cult of Flow really does sound like a legit creepy cult. And yeah, this paring down to lifelessness just trying to find that space… but for what? What does it feel like? Does it really feel good? It feels numbing to me, I guess. There are different sorts of flows, like adrenaline and such, but most games like that make me feel dead. But no, fuck Desert Golfing, I golfed so much waiting for something but all I got was more goddamned golfing. Who the fuck just wants to sit there finger golfing all day??? What is wrong with the world? So mad. What is so important to the genealogical understanding and propagation that games must be “for their own sake,” serious about nothing serious. There’s shit outside of the useless vs useful binary. How does that feel? DEATH TO FLOW. DEATH TO PLAYERS. DEATH TO MECHANICS. DEATH TO WORK AND LEISURE. ONLY MESS AND TENSION AND FEELINGS. Do you think a lot of these gamey games and defense of games for just fucking around’s sake is part of this reaction to encroaching forces to make them do something useful? Is everyone just aiming for the most elegant, beautiful time waster of them all?? Why is everyone so resistant to life? To being messy?

I rarely feel satisfied with video games, that it’s hard to think about what I’ve enjoyed in the recent past. I guess the closest would be Etrian Odyssey, it’s a gamey game, dungeon crawler, RPG battles. I guess what’s hit me in a good place is that you have to draw your own maps in order to navigate the levels, and I found the map-drawing process incredibly soothing, very surprised. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you were already into those types of things. I’m not super into dungeon crawlers so it was hard to get used to, and I take a lot of breaks from it. There was also Sunset, which I also really enjoyed. There’s few games that prompt me to talk about the effects of power in my intimate or even friendly relationships and that meant something to me. I guess I feel more excited about games I want to make, I’m trying to accumulate resources and inspirations and work practices so once I move, I can start really producing things I want to see out in the world.

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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Conversations with AM Cosmos: Personal Evolutions of Fandom

I often gripe about how I wish my job was just to sit around and talk to interesting people all day, having earnest, in depth conversations about joint interests. Social media isn’t the best place for this because there’s a risk with publicly revealing yourself, unedited, to a live audience. Last GDC, I sat down with my fellow rotten girl AM Cosmos to talk about fandom and what it’s like being a fan of media with oppressive imagery and stories in a time of heightened social awareness. We will eventually start talking about Persona 4 (spoilers for it) and the character Adachi, but first, we start candidly about what got us invested in fandom way back when. AM’s lines are in bold, and enjoy!

Well, let’s just get started talking about fandom itself. For me, fandom started when my best friend introduced me to Gundam Wing

I wonder if that isn’t like, a general first?

Yeah, it’s a probably general thing

Even when that question came up at TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival), during the erotic comics panel, it was Spike Trotman, she edits Smut Peddler, Jess Fink, Katie Skelly, and there was my friend Hamlet Machine, and then there was the guy who translates and edits Massive, which is-

That’s that bara magazine right?

Yeah, it’s awesome

That sounds like an amazing panel

It was such a good panel. But everyone was asked the question, “How did you first realize that comics could be an erotic artform” and Spike would say “I would walk into the comic store one day and see Heavy Metal” or something like that and we were all like woah and Hamlet is just sitting there like “So there’s show called Gundam Wing…

Yessss

And she would say “So I tried to google some of these characters and stuff popped up and I was really into it” and I was like “Oh that makes sense, how you draw hair, all the sci-fi stuff is very Gundam Wing

So what was your first fandom then?

I think I was into Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII was like my really big one, ‘cause that’s the first I remember reading fanfiction of.

Yeah, I think they were around at the same time?

They’re both contemporaries

What is your favorite FFVII pairing? Gimme the OTP

I thought it was going to be Zack and Cloud-

Yes that’s mine!

Ha, that’s your jam? But I actually think I’ve come to terms that it’s actually Reno and Cloud

Oh??

I was always really excited when Reno would show up and I would always be like “Ooo, are you going to hassle Cloud?” and that’s how I knew that was my jam. And [the pairing] had a very small subset of fans.

It’s interesting to me that I liked Zack x Cloud because they were rarely seen together in the game. So is like, very figurative

Yeah, so when you say you’re into that, some people don’t really get it, because you don’t get a lot out of those scenes

It’s interesting to me because, for one, fandom tends to create certain archetypes for characters and it was the one I found that Cloud was really different than the rest of the pairings, right? He gets infantilized a lot because this pairing takes place in the past-

And there’s so many times when he’s just like, totally comatose and helpless, so it might have something to do with that

Yeah, and that change really got me. So like, what do you think really grabbed you into fandom?

Well I think it was because, while I was playing Final Fantasy VII I got really into it, and eventually I got to a point where I stopped playing it and I was thirsty for more, I wanted more stories, I liked these characters a lot and wanted to see more of their adventures. And I don’t know how I was exposed to all this- I bet something on Livejournal exposed me to all this probably- I had a Livejournal because I had a friend who became my roommate he was a sysadmin for Livejournal and I was probably like “Oh alright I’ll get a Livejournal” and it turns out that’s how I communicated with Joel back then. Speaking of fandom, I met my boyfriend on a Dragon Ball newsgroup

There you go! My best friend is the person who introduced me to Gundam Wing fandom and that’s how I found fanfiction existed because I didn’t look on the internet for video game stuff when I was younger until, you know, this Gundam Wing and Final Fantasy fanfic

You know, we’re saying ‘fandom’ and I guess I didn’t really count my first two. My first real introduction was a Sailor Moon board, like where you chat about Sailor Moon, but I wasn’t really into the fandom, like reading fanfics. We were more just there to talk about Sailor Moon. It was a board that also had more general stuff but it was a Sailor Moon community. And then, later, when I figured out how to do newsgroups and stuff, I joined the Dragon Ball newsgroup and that’s where I met Joel

It’s interesting that you put it like that because in a way, I guess I’m almost saying fandom to mean fanfiction, but also at the same time I am thinking about fan stuff overall, like, what is that? But, to be fair, we probably started on one weird strain of fandom-

You really need to read Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, there’s little essays from actual fanfic writers and one of the chapters I’m reading now is about a lady who made Star Trek zines, like she had stapling parties, and that’s how they distributed fic back then, by collating them together and just passing them around and swapping zines. Which is really awesome. I’m also really interested in fandoms that have survived that long, like anime and video game ones are very short-term, but like Sherlock Holmes, it has many different iterations, so there’s the original Sherlock people and then the TV series people, like there are many different things to keep the fandom alive. So it’s like the same but also branching itself out

For me, when I think of fandom overall, what my fandom is centered around is fanfiction and fanart, I don’t really do fanart but it does do work to spur my imagination, right?

So you’re more into transformative works?

Yes! Or at least, that’s what comes to mind when I say ‘fandom.’ I mean, that might just be because that’s what I’m more interested in, I never really went on GameFAQs or any of those forums, thank god. No, for me it started when my best friend and another one of her friends started a fan site-

Oh yeah, I made a lot of those, like, I had my shrines-

Yes, shrines! But they made a site for their own AU (Alternate Universe) of Gundam Wing where they mary sued themselves in. Which is funny because I don’t remember using that term too much back then but I like how it eventually became a real thing I don’t have to explain anymore. But yeah, it was so great and ambitious and I was so jealous that I wrote fanfic that mary sued myself into their mary sue of Gundam Wing

So it was like you wrote fanfiction of their fanfiction

Right, I totally did! And it totally caused a rift in our friendship-

Oh my god yes we had similar rifts. So my friends liked Sailor Moon back in middle school, and we wanted to pick a Sailor that represented us. But there were less Sailors that we knew about at the time than there were friends, and one girl got left out and she was like “No fuck you guys, I’m going to be Sailor Saturn I’m going to design my own thing.” She went on to become a fashion designer so it’s fine, she designed her own Sailor Saturn outfit. It was actually really cool. And then one of our friends got the internet and then we discovered there was a whole new world out there and there was a Sailor Saturn and she was awesome looking. And there were the Sailor Stars and we were like what?? But yeah that original caused a rift since we didn’t know about Sailor Saturn

So yeah when I mary sued myself into my friend’s fanfiction I pretty much just stole the man of the other friend! It was basically my best friend’s friend really loved Trowa Barton-

I didn’t like Trowa

What! I did too!

I liked Duo

Duo was okay, but, oh my god this is going to get even better: so the start of the AU actually starts with my two friends orphans taken cared of by Duo before he left to do, you know, Gundam Wing

Oh my god this is really good I really like it

I know right? So yeah, ‘Big Brother Duo’ became, oh my god you’re laughing so much

No I like it!

I’m admitting so many things right now

It’s so great

So basically he was like an older brother figure and he was dating Heero as he typically is and was relatively absent for the most part, just off doing whatever, and it was like all the rest of them doing whatever. And you know what was interesting? Because of the Trowa pairing, and you know how Trowa and Quatre are typically together, and since that other friend was in charge of that pairing, Quatre was made out to be a really bad character and you know, when you think of Quatre he’s just a very nice, overly polite character but this time around they made this character to be like, not vapid, but emotionally or morally absent-

I like that

It’s so interesting, in order to make room in the obvious pairing, yeah they headcanoned Quatre out. So it was interesting because that was my first introduction to Quatre and I was surprised when the rest of fandom treated Quatre so differently: he was more bubbly and innocent and stuff like that. But when I first encountered him he was just like, really intense

I love it when someone takes a character and puts a twist on them, it makes them infinitely more fascinating. That’s why I think ships are so fascinating. I’ve noticed this more recently with the bicycle show (Yowamushi Pedal), there are characters I’m indifferent to, they’re okay, and they’re popular in other ships and I’m like whatever. But then one scene will happen that will trigger a new ship and fanart will pop up and I’d be like “Oh right, this does make sense” and I start to adopt those characters and I’m really into them now

That makes me think that we’re now in a time where, you know, we see shows that are like ‘ready to ship’ before the anime has even started

Yeah, people also call that fujo-baiting

What’s that called?

Fujoshi, the ‘rotten girls’ that do all the shipping

Ooooh

So they call that fujo-baiting, it’s like slightly subtle pandering, you know it’s done all ways, done for guys, girls, whomever.

But then there’s also like this ad-hoc pairing where, you know, like once everything’s said and done everyone in the show needs to be in a pairing, so you have your own perfect universe where everyone is paired in whatever you way you like.

There are totally people who will be like “No, these two would never pair” and it’s like, calm down. People have all these different perceptions about what feels right.

So how about we look more specifically into Persona 4 fandom? What is the environment of Persona 4 fandom, is it different?

So, I haven’t really been involved in it, Persona 4 fandom is more like, I’m in this weird phase where I’m in games and so are a lot of my friends, and Persona 4 fandom is mostly just my friends who like the game. Oh, have you seen the sweatshirt I just bought?

You bought an Adachi sweatshirt??

I bought a fucking Adachi sweatshirt

Oh my god, (reading the sweatshirt) “The world has gone straight to shit”

I know we were out and Joel was like “There’s some Adachi stuff” and I was like “What? Nooo it’s gotta be fake” but I look over and he was right. I don’t know if it’s like a localized shirt? But it’s like legit merchandise

I think this is an interesting look at fandom though, like, those who were in fandom and moved on, but now we have all these different little ways to keep fandom in our lives. You know, we found friends who like the same sort of thing, and it’s like we have our own culture now

Yeah it’s our own little fandom but we just define things our own particular ways

So, how would you say this particular arm of Persona fandom looks like?

Well, they all pick a favorite that they want to date. A lot of them do accept the headcanon of Yosuke dating the main character and being closeted, it helps make his character feel way more acceptable you know? And hard because other people have very valid points about him so when you go “I like Yosuke” they’d be like, “What’s wrong with you” so you have to be like “No, you have to look at him this way and it works really well”

So basically, Yosuke as closeted is the only thing that’s allowed for Yosuke

Yeah and they definitely pander to that [in the anime] and it’s wonderful. I actually brought another thing. I forgot to mention that Kris Ligman is also a part of the Adachi Swamp-

Wait is it officially called the “Adachi Swamp?”

That’s what Japanese fans call it but I got a friend, she understands Japanese, and she gave me these to show, look- it’s lewd stuff between Adachi, the main character, and Yosuke-

Oh my

There’s a lot of problematic shit here, lots of bad romance in here

Oh my

It’s really good. She has a collection, came over to my house with like a stack of doujin. It was really fun, she left it at my house for a couple of weeks so I went through them and they are so good.

I have one doujinshi that I’ve kept, I got it on eBay when I was like fourteen-years-old or something. It’s Zack x Cloud and I can’t understand anything in it, just like the pictures.

I got rid of so much of my manga. I got rid of my Final Fantasy doujin, I had Gundam Wing, Digimon. I had a lot of Harry Potter doujin, those were interesting. I kept one called Heavy Fucker, that’s a parody doujin but it’s really good.

Let’s say if you had to characterize how you and other people reacted to Persona 4 as opposed to, let’s say video games or other fandoms, like, what is it it you like about this fandom or this game?

You know, it was very interesting watching the Giant Bomb Let’s Play, I don’t know how they got into it but they were just playing thinking they were just going to do a couple episodes. But then they started to get grabbed to the point where they played the entire thing, and it was so interesting watching that. And it was hilarious watching them play, they were so bad at it, I don’t know how they beat some of those bosses. I’m watching like “You don’t even know how weaknesses work! What the fuck are you doing?” I actually should watch through and see reactions to Adachi, I haven’t seen that. Oh, this is another aspect of fandom: When I’m playing a game, I used to go to the thread in Something Awful and I’d partake in a thread depending on the game, so instead of GameFAQs I had a games forum, and it was pretty active. But I had Adachi spoiled for me because of an avatar of his deformed face and I was like “Ooooh nooo, I see what’s going on here.” So I played through, and caught him and he ran off, and I got to the final dungeon but didn’t really play past that. And now I got Golden (an updated release of Persona 4), and it’s really awesome in Golden when you know what he’s up to. So I don’t feel bad getting spoiled because it’s better knowing in this case.

And that’s it for now! We will continue this conversation about Persona 4 and Adachi in particular next time. And you should read AM’s great work on otome games too! Stay tuned~

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Letters with John Sharp: Inter-generational conflict in games

Trying something new! I decided to start up some letter series with other thinkers in games, or just generally interesting people I’m connected with to get different perspectives on topics I like to talk about, or important issues games may be facing.  The first person I started chatting with was John Sharp, a professor at Parsons The New School for Design who has a broader view of games that sits well with me and I’m glad to see in a program that features play and technology. When we were finding out what we wanted to talk about, we arrived on some conflict between older academics and designers and younger ones, and I asked him to describe what he thought that tension was. So without further ado, here was his response:

 

John:

hey Mattie-

I’m not sure tension is necessarily the right word, thinking about it more. For me, a lot of it boils down to the values around knowledge, history and criticism. As someone who has an academic background in art history, I’ve been fed a steady diet of “lit reviews,” annotated bibliographies and citations. So my initial response to much of the critical writing I see is, “oh, right, that’s like X and Y and Z. I wonder if they have read/played/watched/heard that?”. Related, it often surprises me when ideas that seemed well-known are treated as new—not necessarily by the critic but by the response to the criticism. It also makes me wonder why certain concepts take hold when explored by younger critics outside academia when they didn’t when explored by academics or older critics/designers/artists.

I’ve come to realize that I’m used to one set of values (that of the humanities within American academia, 1980s leftist punk rock, etc.), while that often has little to do with the values of the younger critics. And though there may be a certain aspects that are “reinventing the wheel,” there is also a lot of new ground being covered from different perspectives, and for different reasons. As a result, I’m learning a lot, and rethinking all sorts of things, big and small.

That’s pretty exciting, at least it could be, if (wearing my academic hat here) the two communities were able to learn from one another. Maybe that’s overly idealistic, or even self-serving of me. I guess that is part of what I hope we can tease out through this dialog between you and me.

Part of this conversation-through-letters format is posing questions. So a couple of questions for you, if I may: what drew you to this conversation format? And what’s your take on Sage Solitaire?

 

Mattie:

I think you make a lot of relevant observations that point to how time and place really affect the dynamics of what is see as two schools of people who differ from each other. Something that might be both subtle and duh at the same time is how much being in different generations is affecting how we approach games discourse; for the most part, people viewed as young upstarts are millennials and are products of growing up with the internet and landing in markets and institutions with expectations they can’t reach unless they are pretty privileged.

With that, I find there is this expectation of our generation to follow the last in games, or at least cite the histories and texts they learned to appreciate. I think we do reference histories that are relevant to us, but they aren’t coming from the same traditions or line of thought that who is appointed as ‘before’ us do. In a way, older academics and designers see us as after them and we don’t see ourselves the same way. We grew up independently, mostly because the older generation was establishing industries and academic programs and we were cobbling things from wherever life took us, so it’s not like we came from any sort of tradition. Right now, your students and protege designers are ‘the next generation’ of that group of people, not us. This is similar to other sorts of generational rifts: social justice online doesn’t really heed much to 2nd wave feminism and its figureheads because it wasn’t grounded in enough intersectional politics, and intersectional feminism took to the internet faster because platforms like social media and forums were the only places those without academic access to talk with people like them about this higher level stuff sometimes. I’m thinking about trans people in particular, who’ve had blowups with older trans people lately. We learned to structure our communities in different ways, through the internet in particular, and learned from there. Many of us didn’t grow up hanging out in clubs for cis gay people, particularly men, as our only method of encountering people like us. By the time we learned about trans-ness, feminism was being taught as influenced by queer and critical race studies, so when some veteran voices speak up it’s easy to feel disconnected from them because it’s like they are speaking another language with different customs and inside jokes that they expect us to get but are actually sometimes horrifying to hear.

So while our work is often influenced by institutions, since many of us went to school and either dropped out or got a degree unrelated to games, our work is not for institutions, like how many older academics took their education to form games studies and academia as a whole. Since we aren’t a part of that tradition, our work isn’t really respected or encouraged by institutions. And if people don’t perceive that they have respect or clout from or in an institution, why would they spend time referencing that institution in their work? It’s entirely possible that the words of younger game critics and designers are respected by established academics, but that is rarely gestured.

Which leads to the main point of difference between the groups: game critics aim to reach different people, from those generally interested in games and sometimes reads thinkpieces to artists outside of games who would recognize our style and bridge-build from there. Reading games criticism isn’t hugely popular, but it’s more pervasive than it was even 5 years ago, so a lot of basic games theory or topics are going to seem new. This ties into how games critics get any sort of support, which is from whatever niche and sometimes general audiences would give them. Despite sometimes using the same language as those in academia or veteran designer positions, game critics ultimately serve those who follow their work, and in general, have stronger social media and writing presences than most academics do. I remember very distinctly when I started writing about how people didn’t respond to my just-out-of-college inaccessibility, and how actually a lot of general publications still find my writing too academic. We’re pressured to learn how to communicate a lot of these thoughts to wider audiences, and to speak as many thoughts as we can. I think this is why things that seem obvious to the established are seen as new to many others, because there’s just simply a wider reach to have when you’re a games critic than when you’re an academic. I’ve seen games criticism dubbed ‘middle-state’ writing before, being between academic and populist writing, and it serves as a translating service from one side to the other sometimes.

With that, games critics are often driven more by current events than any particular line of research. While there are definitely pieces of writings that serve as throw-backs or are completely off-topic, a lot of games critics use what’s happening in the world to contextualize more complex topics while it’s all fresh in people’s minds and with subjects they care about. When I first looked up academic writing on games, they were from the same games from the early 2000s that people just don’t talk about anymore, and of course, these were all locked behind paywalls. While that’s changing, I do think this arm of games criticism is helping that along, as it has a speed and digestibility advantage over publishing in academic journals. So yeah, while we might see similar at times, our timing and place makes how people access our work and concepts different, which is why you might be seeing disparate reactions between who is saying what.

I really do feel though that there is a place and reason for older, established academics and designers to get along with us younger folk. I personally feel invested in inter-generational work because I think there’s knowledge and access that comes from that on both sides. But communities are intentional, you have networks of people because you purposefully wove them together. There isn’t any of that going on between older academics/designers and younger ones, at least, not with ones that aren’t your students. You all are way more pervasive and in our view than the other way around: we have to go to your events, hear your talks, read your works, and in general feel your presence way more than you do for us. It’s rarer for this older generation to extend the same gesture, though it is appreciated when people do! I feel like I can talk to you, Colleen [Macklin], Richard [Lemarchand], Clara [Fernandez-Vara], and some others because you all will read my stuff or go to my events and actually engage. There are many who don’t, and it feels like they treat us like offspring but are off working and never are home to bond and actually grow a relationship. I really believe the ball is in the court of the people with more access, resources, power, and ability to create a non-hostile meeting grounds.

As for Sage Solitaire, I definitely feel like it’s a game I’m supposed to say has ‘elegant design’ but I generally remain unaffected by these sorts of games. I guess it feels derivative enough for me to feel like it’s something I’ve played before? The game seems to boil down to typical gambling-probability themes, and I dunno, I’m kind of over stuff so heavily influenced by gambling design traditions. It’s like, where does this game fit into my life? I can imagine someone maybe writing about how this game helps them with anxiety or something but that’s a credit to people’s ability to integrate media into their experiences, not that the game leaves room for personhood.

 

John:

Yes, I think the generational differences are strong, I agree. One big commonality, though: most of us 40-somethings don’t have degrees in games, either. We also came up through comparative literature (Ian Bogost), media studies (Mary Flanagan), film (Tracy Fullerton), art history (me), and other diverse disciplines across the humanities. To my knowledge, Jesper Juul holds the distinction of being the first of us 40+ types to have actually studied games as a student. Still, we all come from disciplines steeped in humanities-based ideas about how knowledge is gained, shared and passed on. And that informs how many instinctually think of younger game critics and designers. And so we are separated not just by generation, but by the traditions of how we frame what we do, and for whom we do it.

A slight aside, but I don’t really think of you all as being the next generation in the academic lineage of game studies, probably because I don’t see myself as emerging from it either. I see you all coming more from the traditions of music criticism, DIY theory and the like from the 70s and 80s.

Anyway, you are right, you all owe no allegiance to us and our work. You aren’t beholden to us in any way, and it is unreasonable for us to think you all should pay attention to us. The analogy of the negligent parent is apt, like a stereotypical absentee parent only coming around when they want something, or when the child has found success on their own. Some of us, we (or at least I) feel a responsibility to pay attention to the younger critics and designers, best I can.

You are right, there are differences between our audiences and our intentions at times. In broadest terms, criticism is a lens for helping interested readers consider works, while academic writing is more professional communication amongst peers. Still, academics need to pull of the same sort of translation work as critics. It is certainly how I think of my writing, though I realize my writing style is often too wonky and dense to actually accomplish that in many cases.

Academic writing moves really slowly in any event. An essay I wrote 18 months ago about the seeds for the indie games phenomenon will finally be out in the spring. That’s roughly two years after the fact. I’ve had to amend the essay numerous times as things have changed around indie games. So the idea of writing quickly about a current game seems nearly impossible to me—both because of my working process, but also because of how things get done in academic publishing. I’ve experimented on my blog with some quicker writing, things that are started and finished in a few days or a week at most. Not sure I’ve got it down yet, but it certainly has led me to admire the speed with which critics and journalists can work through ideas and write.

I also agree that the ball should be in the court of those with more access, privilege, power and resources. The ways we want to do that, though, aren’t always helpful—inviting you to give talks at conferences (but not offering support to get there), asking you to write essays (without compensation), linking to your work (but not considering that we might be sending vultures instead of readers). So it is on those of us who are trying to be part of the solution to be thoughtful about whose problem we are solving—ours or yours. I’m slowly coming to understand more about how to listen to what you all are saying, and not just assume you want to be part of our communities of practice and infrastructure.

I know I have all sorts of blind spots— in my critical (in the academic sense) knowledge, how I understand the world, etc., etc.—and you all help me find them, and hopefully with the new insights, I can address them. I also know that’s unfair of me, to look to you and your peers to help me understand how to do better. It leads me to think more about what I can do in return. The obvious stuff—share references, ideas, experience from nearly 30 years experience as a designer, 16 years as an educator and more than 20 years as an academic—doesn’t seem either wanted nor enough. Perhaps our conversation will help me figure out better ways.

I’m not sure you need to say Sage Solitaire has elegant design (we’ll reserve that for last year’s darling, Desert Golfing). I’m not sure I think Sage Solitaire is elegant either, though I have spent a good deal of time playing it over the last week. It has cut into my usual rotation of Drop7, Two Dots and Triple Town—my go-to idle moment games. Sadly, they end up being the bulk of my gameplay too often, but that’s another story.

My sense is unaffected is an operative term here around games like Sage Solitaire. It isn’t an expressive game, at least not how I think about them. It is just a game, a pastime in the strictest sense, and not really doing anything Tetris or Candy Crush doesn’t already I suppose. The affect is lulling, calming, absorbing, but not revealing, expressing, considering, or other words we might use about work that does mean something in the sense of exploring the human condition.

A while back, I went on an artist’s tour of the Pennsylvania Hotel as part of Elastic City’s annual festival. An artist had spent months visiting the hotel, walking its halls, learning the habits of the hotel’s staff and guests, and generally coming to really know the place. She then constructed a tour she took a group of a dozen of us on one evening. We explored empty ballrooms, corridors, listened to the silence of the halls, visited rooms, and generally came to have a really expressive understanding of a fairly mundane space. It was one of the more enriching art experiences I’ve had in some time.

As we walked through the hotel, I couldn’t help but think about videogames. What would it be like to make a game that provided a similar experience? I was struck by the emptiness of videogame spaces, and how that always just seems like how it should be. But when in similarly empty spaces in real life, they took on so much more meaning and important, and had so much more powerful impact on me than any 3D game ever has. One of the rooms we visited was an abandoned efficiency apartment that appeared to have been hastily abandoned, with most of the furniture removed. Random things remained, though—a small passport sized picture of a man, a calendar, newspapers, a lamp, paper clips. It immediately made me think of “object oriented storytelling,” and how hollow that feels when compared to a real space with real things, presumably left behind by someone.

All of which made me kind of sad about games, that they aren’t able to connect with me in the same way an artist’s tour of a hotel can.

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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