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18

Jun

Can Games Teach Us To Die?

Somewhere on the list of game design truisms is the idea that players should feel like their actions are meaningful. If player inputs don’t return some patterned response, the game breaks down. The falcon is rude to the falconer.

Which is unfortunate because it puts the theme of futility at a discount, almost excluding it from games by definition. If games are predicated on respecting player agency we can’t have games where that input is silenced, ignored, absorbed, deflected. When we bump against the limits of what a game affords— when we try to open the door that is just a flat graphic, or explore an ethical complexity that hasn’t been written into the storyline, or hit buttons that just don’t do anything— we remember that our agency is defined within some horizon. Most games will try to persuade you that they have enabled the really important choices. Life will not. That difference can make games cathartic, but it can also be frustrating, infantilizing, and dissatisfying. If games always listen to us we can’t play with them to better understand a world that is profoundly indifferent.

When I started playing The Banner Saga I was impressed with the apparent futility of the player’s situation. The end of the world is not impending, it’s been going on for awhile. The gods are dead. The midday sun is motionless in the sky. The recent invasion of the dredge—a machinic, alien race—is very bad but in the grand scheme probably not as bad as the condition you’ve already accepted. To survive, your clan must defeat the dredge and collect supplies. There isn’t much hope that you’ll ever reach safety but it’s better than just waiting around to die.

Although The Banner Saga communicates its premise directly, the emotional ambiance is most convincingly conveyed in the gallows humor of the varl warriors accompanying you. They varl are, as a rule, very large and very old. When you talk to them they laugh and say that you’re probably all going to die.

The over-arching game loop has the structure of Oregon Trail salted with the anti-Manifest Destiny of The Road. Within that frame there are story encounters offering a couple choices of action and frequent tactical skirmishes against the dredge. Here (as in Oregon Trail’s hunting mini-game) you have full control of your warriors, in contrast to the unpredictability of the encounters themselves. The Banner Saga uses these two game modes to establish the horizon of futility. You will walk until you die, most likely, but until that happens you can fight however you choose. Like a more violent version of Passage.

By suspending the possibility of survival and the usefulness of instrumental reasoning in achieving it, the game draws you closer to the real work of perseverance: the emotional labor of keeping your shit together. You’re never really given the opportunity to give up—and playing as Rook, who becomes his clan’s leader for the sake of his daughter Alette, I never wanted to—but the game makes you feel the burdensomeness of the journey and the temptation of an early end. The battles are a welcome break from the marches during which you can only wait and worry. I imagine that sometimes Rook feels the same way.

As the game progresses, the sense that your actions ultimately do not matter gets stretched in conflicting directions. You are confronted by story encounters where a seemingly shrewd choice costs you dearly or where indulging in a fit of scruples yields riches. You aren’t pushed to be “good” or “bad” but the outcomes can verge from unpredictable to arbitrary. At the same time, the story world’s scope expands beyond that of your initial characters, gesturing toward a larger narrative in which their seemingly tragic plight might be instrumental in saving the world after all. The player moves away from the limited, strained, personal perspective of Rook and Alette. Their struggle to want to survive has less emotional kick once the player sees they might be useful in some larger exchange of pawns. That story arc is not fully paid off in The Banner Saga. After finishing the game I learned this installment was advertised as part of a trilogy during the Kickstarter campaign; I mention this fact here because it is not mentioned at all if you just buy it off Steam.

In the end, I felt that my sense of what I could affect and what I must accept was not fully reflected in the outcomes that the game had prepared. The question of whether everyone dies or something unexpected happens is unanswered, left as the material for another episode.

What I loved in the game at first blush was maybe not what its creators intended and maybe not something that will even be part of the final product. I had thought this was a game about the end of humanity as it appears to be coming to pass in real life. Our planet is becoming inhospitable for us, because of us. To stop that requires the transformation of—of everything, from our material expectations of comfort to our social institutions to our individual psyches. Perhaps it is possible, but there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that we will make those changes.

Our environmental problems are not merely the question of finding some new and better technology—though I am a sucker for nuclear fusion—that will disrupt the apocalypse. The condition of our planet is not like a game system, designed to be won, that can necessarily be pierced with pure reason. Games, the games we’ve made, have told us this because it was what we wanted to hear. They made us think that a sufficiently reasoned input would return the win condition. They were entertainment, delighting us with intelligently designed worlds. But it looks like we might be fucked. We—or rather, some small shard of humanity that has enough power to be mistaken for the all—might be too in love with the inequality and ease that are killing us to benefit from what help instrumental reasoning could provide. We may already be in the endgame.

But games, and Banner Saga might turn out to be one of them, can still provide an occasion to work on doing that well. We have a long way to go before we are all dead. We have a hard road that we can make better for each other. Instrumental reasoning is useful—just as in The Banner Saga you want to win those encounters with the dredge, we should still do what is in our power to reduce material harm—but with the horizon of futility in sight, it may be time for games to stop listening to us.

 

16

Jan

A Damn Mess

Katy Perry’s “Roar” is a pretty big piece of shit as far as lyrics go. The center of the song, from which it gets its name, is a riff on the phrase “eye of the tiger,” which means something because there was another song that got famous that said that. The rest of it is a collection of cliches and mixed metaphors that similarly sort of mean things, or gesture toward meaningful things, like a realtor trying to sell you on the stories in someone else’s home. At every turn, “Roar” defers making statements of original poetic force in favor of pinging well-worn references—like a musical version of Family Guy, but serving doe-eyed smarm instead of white boy solace.

But does it matter? The song has a strong melody and production values, and I’m only writing this because I’ve had it stuck in my head long enough that I need some form of exorcism. Moreover, does it matter if media—what used to be called “art”—is nothing more than a pastiche of references that manages us to excite once more? Does art need to attempt to create something ex nihilo?

Perry’s form of art is certainly better than the Romantic myth of the creative genius. Surfaces, movements, deferrals—these are all she conjures because that’s all there is anyway. It is the apotheosis of what critics fought to legitimize from about 1964 (I think that’s when Writing and Difference came out?) to the mid-90s.

This is commercialized deconstruction. It is the postmodernist, poststructuralist, post-you-name-it nightmare: that all the systems of thought those “posts-” modify have been done away with, breaking the exchange between the parasite and the host. Deconstruction must be a response to and elaboration of a structure. Here the position of response becomes the system with closure, and one that has been vaccinated against our best critiques of it. To criticize Perry we are stuck in Fred Jameson’s Postmodernism; or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, giving up the capacity for an aesthetic critique in exchange for tying it to the perennial and easy target of capitalism. On that account, “Roar” is not bad because it is bad but because it is a subset or symptom of capitalism.

So—there’s that way out. You can always exit the aesthetic conversation for the cultural one (and that door will lead you from freelancing into grad school). But this song is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with capitalism. Moreover, I am claiming more than “I don’t like it.” It’s bad for exactly the reasons I said: the lyrics fail to meet the minimum requirements of sense, rhyme, meter, and semantic force that I can fairly expect of words in mass media.

The problem we have isn’t that we don’t know how to say things are aesthetically bad but that we are accustomed to attributing the wrong truth value to those claims. Since, I don’t know, Socrates, the Western tradition has agreed that certain types of inquiry (math, logic, sometimes science) have access to objective truth while other questions can only result in subjective truths. Aesthetics has always been the no man’s land where we want to make objective claims but accept we can not. At most we can taxonomize the range of human responses and suggest the different causes of each (see Hume, Burke, Kant). But now that art has given itself over to media and the practice of making a good song—or good image, film, book, etc—is as much a matter of technics as inspiration, we need to claim the capability to say when aesthetic objects are objectively bad.

It’s funny: the post-whateverists fought well against the view that the world is a collection of measurements to be gathered—I’d even say they won the theoretical fight—but in the end it doesn’t matter. The way in which we produce media has changed. The scientism is coming from inside the house. Now it’s not a matter of what theory we use to look at something like “Roar” but whether we respond to the structure of the object itself or discover in it only the secret we plant there. “Roar” is a series of deflections (so it is both trivial and impossible to show that it contradicts itself, or whatever other metaphysical conclusion one might want to demonstrate) wrapped around the industrial practice of making music people buy. That includes not just the technics of recording, producing, and mastering music, but of having data on the objective state of human preferences. I don’t mean a reductive, single, universal “human”—one taste to fit them all, the problem that bedeviled Kant’s efforts to move aesthetics from subjective to objective—but the complex fabric of data on humans that aims, like Borges’s map, to become a 1:1 of the thing it represents. (Unlike Borges’s map this one is accessible from a terminal and so avoids the spatial absurdity of the map being identical to the territory).

The price we pay is that subjective aesthetic judgment—the part where we say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”—has also moved toward the status of objective truths. Thanks to the existence of a shared mass media—the thing that makes it possible for “Roar” to rattle off a series of glib references that everyone will recognize as references, for us to recognize the lowest common denominator as such—the status of the pleasurable is also an objective fact. Look at a Katy Perry video: this is fun. This is objectively fun. This is a reality that transcends the individual yet has the quality of being completely historical and empirical. It might be objectively bad, and you might not partake of the pleasure that is on offer, but you don’t get to subjectively determine what is and is not pleasurable anymore.

image

                                                    This is fun

This is the bargain we’ve been born into. We have more power to say what is bad or good and why, but less to say what we should enjoy. Not that there is no pleasure to be had for people who don’t want to enjoy garbage; the pleasure is now in the act of destroying the garbage. And perhaps it not a coincidence that this is what was first offered by the beat-and-shoot ‘em up video games of my youth. It is certainly not a coincidence that it is shared by some of my favorite writers of my—well, generation is too broad and pretentious—but maybe cohort? I mean guys like Dave Thorpe, Luke O’Neil, and Jeb Lund (and generally but not necessarily others who wasted the best years of their lives on SA) who are best at tearing down their enemies and can do it with instinctual speed. In a landscape of constant cancerous media production there is a need for people who are purely destructive.

Maybe that isn’t a healthy way to approach the world—personally I enjoy it—but the people who argue against criticism are also the ones pumping out the bullshit. These positions are complementary and both contribute to the objective status of aesthetic judgments, the one by producing a statistically useful data set and keeping track of the results, and the other doing the work of Maxwell’s demon and sorting it out. (It’s worth remembering the appearance of Maxwell’s demon in The Crying of Lot 49 to see Pynchon’s paranoia as precursor to today’s media clear-cutting).

So. That’s where I think we are: drowning in trash and fighting for breath. Maybe it’s easier with a theory explaining why things feel like this, that says you’re not wrong to keep slashing your way through the waves of refuse. I don’t know. This could just as well be another one for the ash heap.

05

Dec

on Catching Fire

In David Denby’s review of Catching Fire he tosses off two interesting observations about the franchise’s premise: it’s absolutely nuts to think that an oppressive government could better subdue its underclass by forcing their children to fight to the death, and the metaphorical value of the contest is rather nonspecific in its evocation of the contemporary endgame which we might call capitalism, the job market, high school, or what have you. (I would quote Denby as he states both points eloquently but I let my 6 month old play with the magazine and her favorite game is eat and destroy).

The first observation, which should be incredibly obvious, gobsmacked me: how the hell had I accepted the idea that the televised corruption, torture, and murder of teenagers would make their parents less likely to revolt? Probably by implicitly accepting the second equation: that because it was ugly it was somehow a metaphor for the ugliness around me, even if I couldn’t really say why.

I could jump through a couple of allegorical hoops to square that circle, but a simpler way to parse the situation is to say that Americans accept the idea that the slaughter of young people makes their parents less violent is because this is the assumption of American foreign policy. To reject that premise is to reject what America does in Afghanistan and everywhere else that it wages the “war on terror.” Or, really, anywhere America acts beyond its borders. Or, if we’re being really real, anywhere American policy holds sway at all. Within the fortress of America a for-profit prison industry ensures that a substantial percentage of young people must be confined to a pit that would never earn a PG-13 rating or else risk impinging on job growth (please tell me you aren’t against job growth?!). Let me skim over all the young people given suboptimal educations because their local governments bet coffers and pensions on housing bubbles, as well as all those children whose food and medical benefits have been rescinded because their caretakers were bilked by financial traders whose crimes have been gerrymandered outside the scope of the law, to the college students just one rung below America’s middle class. Even they must be branded with a form of debt more punitive than that carried by any other entity and at interest rates designed to benefit their private creditors. America’s youth do compete in a death match—they struggle under the dead weight of capital given prematurely to a generation prior—and to live this condition is to accept that young people will be handled cruelly. Adult Americans should not care.

Hunger Games is a symptom, not a metaphor. Its premise shows that it comes from a culture struggling with the cognitive dissonance of sending its youth to slaughter but it doesn’t signify the mechanics by which that culture actually operates. Snot is a symptom of a cold—mucus is a useful way to flush membranes while maintaining a protective barrier; it makes complete sense as a symptom—but a runny nose doesn’t doesn’t provide a model for how viruses and immune systems interact. Reading (or writing) metaphorically helps when we are trying to make a claim about how something works. Sometimes we aren’t ready for that, and all we have to go on is a symptom. But at least a symptom can tell you where it hurts.

12

Nov

Soldiers have no place in the Anthropocene

The NYT ran a pretty good piece about death, philosophy, soldiering, and the future of our planet during massive climate change. I give it a rating of “pretty good” as the average of “excellent application of Stoicism to the present moment” and “very poor argument connecting that to soldiering.”

First, the injunction to meditate on death as a way to lessen its sting is not strictly martial, and it would probably be easier to find sources supporting this technique in ethics in general. I understand that it makes a good hook to sell ad space on Veteran’s Day but that isn’t classically considered a valid reason to ignore evidence concerning your area of inquiry.

Second, and related, is that he ahistoricizes the experience of war. Any 10th grade world history student knows about the changes in European warfare between the 19th and early twentieth centuries. The industrialization of war changed the psychological response for both soldiers and citizens. This is not to say that there is nothing be be gained from classical philosophy—far from it—but that we need to be mindful when drawing parallels. In this case the parallelism is created to install an ahistorical figure of the Soldier, when the practices of soldiering vary widely between times and places.

That in turn leads to the third mistake of discounting non-martial positions that reflect on death. Why isn’t depression his case study, when (at least in my experience) that can lead to the daily ritual of reflecting on one’s death as a way to stabilize personal existence? If this essay didn’t have the first two problems—which again we can trace to the injunction to market itself on Veteran’s Day—it would be quite simple to see that the depressive is the better example because the Anthropocene does not present an Enemy, as war classically has, and instead offers, as he says, an inevitability. The author is correct to intuit the connection between a soldier in the war on terror and the human in the Anthropocene because both lack enemies and victory conditions.

Amazingly, his argument is correct for the reasons he goes out of his way to ignore, namely, that the war he served in withheld the possibility of victory from its inception. The relevant experience was not fighting a war—the essence of the Soldier—but waiting to die, which only makes sense when talking about this war. And it makes sense when talking about the empirical reality of small ‘s’ soldiers who have mental health concerns that don’t need to be elevated to the level of ontology to deserve our attention.

Oh, and I say the depressive is the better case not to win a measuring contest but to show how absurd such a gesture is when talking about the extinction of our species.

30

Aug

Intro to Unemployment

My friend Josh got laid off like a month before me. Today he gave me his advice on how to get through the day.

josh: so heres the deal. as a stay home dad, its basically like prison

josh: you set a schedule, stick to it.

josh: do your work

me: right

josh: pump iron

josh: watch dr phil

me: a mans gotta live

josh: pump more iron

josh: and treat your wife like the queen, because shes the only way your lazy ass gets to eat

josh: also, when shes home you can pump more iron

josh: she will be impressed

29

Aug

I. Love. Batman.

You either hear the news or infer it from Twitter: Ben Affleck has been announced to play Batman in a new movie. You better say something, and soon, or no one will know that you know.

On one hand, Ben Affleck is kind of a dweeby turd because he has done a lot of things that merit the description—like his movies, and his red carpet politics, and his smarmy face—but on the other hand, getting worked up about Batman would make you a dweeby turd. Not cool. Better to point out how silly Batman is and make fun of Ben Affleck. Heh, Batman. A guy who dresses like a bat, sort of. I mean he could be a horse with tiny ears and a super long mane. Whatever.

Not me. I fucking love Batman.

Maybe Ben Affleck will be bad. He doesn’t fit the type of Batman that Christopher Nolan has cultivated—the director who, I guess, either proposed or thumbs-uped a Batman who disguises his identity by talking like a little boy’s idea of daddy—which is actually a pretty good description of Batman—but Affleck has proven himself to be a competent actor and director in movies like The Town and Argo. He could be fine.

I’m not here to praise Ben Affleck or to bury him; I want to talk about Batman. I am here to say that, even though he is a rich guy who tries to fight crime while pretending to be a critter of the night— again, not talking about Affleck— Batman matters. I’ll get passionate about him and I don’t mind. I love Batman and he is worthy of my love.

Do you know Batman like I do? Specifically: have you read some of the Batman comics of the last thirty odd years? See, I think this is the critical difference between people who get Batman and people who are like, oh, a guy in a bat costume. If you only know Batman from his movies and the clippings from goofy old cartoons, he’s easy to write off. He’s a silly concatenation of wish fulfillments that adds up to a vector for Happy Meals and Mountain Dew. But that’s not Batman! Those are a fragment, a splinter, of the body of work exploring the character of Batman. If he was really a flat, nonsensical character, why would he keep coming back to revitalize the brands that live off him? Nah, see, that’s not Batman, or rather, that’s only him in his sacrificial form. Decade after decade, Batman rises up to die for America. The question isn’t why a stupid character has lasted so long but what depth drives his reincarnation.

In the 1980s superhero comics got serious. They became self-reflexive about the superhero concept but did not turn away from it, Watchmen being probably the best known example. No, they understood that though comics had been part of propagating the concept, the superhero preceded them. The superhero couldn’t be abandoned—it had to be critiqued, and no one was better equipped to do so than comic writers themselves. So you find scenes like the final conflict in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns where Batman battles a Superman who has become the resigned waterboy for Reagan’s empire. Superheroes are the guys on both sides of the fight: concentrated power fantasies that give body to abstractions like “the nation,” and our knowledge of the lie at that heart, and the belief, requisite to avoid suicide, that somehow an individual—like us, if not quite like us—can fight back.

Christopher Nolan knows this scene: his dark, psychological films draw a great deal on the four books comprising the Dark Knight Returns arc (and, most obviously, his title is nearly identical). Differences between the two, where Nolan seems to have intentionally departed from his preferred source material, are telling. In the first act of the comic series Batman faces a young, strong, populist mutant leader who is a visually similar foil to the Bane of Dark Knight Rises. The final battle of Returns also pits Batman against a physically superior populist opponent, the aforementioned Superman. Frank Miller’s four book structure gives Batman a sequence of rising challenges, with the mutant leader, while dangerous, being the least of them and Superman—avatar for the government of the United States of America—the most threatening. By putting Bane at the end of his trilogy, Nolan combines characters from Dark Knight Returns while reversing the sequence and political message. For Miller, the mutant boss (and his reminder that Batman is aging, that he is mortal) are the least of Batman’s problems. America is his true and unconquerable foe.

But Nolan, or maybe it’s Ledger, gets the Joker right. The Joker is the key—that’s why he appears in so many of the great comics during the series’ rebirth. The relationship between Batman and Joker is the reason anyone gives a single shit about Batman today. The Joker asks the question at the heart of Batman’s origin (his parents are shot dead in a robbery, in case you didn’t know) and his lifelong self-doubt: how can we know if our violence is just? That is Batman’s epistemological struggle, and encounters with the Joker are about the madness that the law must pass through while enforcing itself violently. That’s it. That’s Batman, and Joker is the key to understanding it. If you take away the agony and doubt of doing violent justice, then it’s true that all you have is a guy in tights beating up thugs. You have George Zimmerman as seen by Ted Nugent— an ideological simpleton, an abuser empowered by the status quo.

This is why Miller ends with the Superman fight. Batman’s ultimate struggle is not to prevent the descent into anarchist violence, as in Nolan’s sequence, or even to overcome his own doubt about whether he’s just a violent psychopath born with a silver spoon. Overcoming Joker, for Miller and for Nolan, requires that he accept that they are two sides of the same coin—and Nolan does well to include Two Face as the embodiment of that self-knowledge. In the middle of both series Batman looks into the abyss and survives. The Batman coming out of that trial has a different task: to make those who would do violence in the name of justice suffer the hideousness of their existence. And that is a lesson he will teach Superman, and the government of the U.S., by any means necessary.

/// I originally included that rhetorical nod to Malcolm X to raise a specific example in American history of the ambivalence of violence as justice, but after seeing the way white people have gone wild appropriating MLK the last few days I feel like maybe I should leave it out. But here’s the point I was trying to make subtly and will now make explicit: if Batman was black— a rich black man riding around in a really nice car beating the shit out of white teens for doing the violence they are taught they are entitled to do— white America would not think of him as a superhero with psychological depth but as a terrorist. I mean they already try to smear Kanye as a delinquent dad for doing his damn job, and there’s nothing more dadly than doing your damn job. My view, which I’ve said before, is that terrorism is a value neutral description and it is the purpose for which it is being used that is the object of moral judgment.  I decided to leave it in as a prompt to consider the question, what if Batman was black? ////

My point here is not that Christopher Nolan presents a reactionary version of Dark Knight Returns, although I’m also saying that, but to show how Batman is a nexus for important, timely shit. I’ve only been talking about one comic arc. There’s still Year One and The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum and Gates of Gotham lots more, all of which start from the premise that they need to present a psychologically driven narrative about a billionaire fighting crime with brute force—which is insane, but is also literally America. (You know what else is both comically and tragically ludicrous: everything). Each writer or artist to contribute knows they are joining a conversation in progress where they need to bring something new while being mindful of responding to what’s already been said. (I mean, there are shitty Batman comics too but that doesn’t invalidate the good ones).

Of course, it’s not like Batman is the only game in town for talking about the state and madness and violence. I’m not trying to say Batman is a gospel, perfect and universal—the Batman universe tends to be assume white men are the drivers of history—but that Batman is a tradition for a critique of violence using the terms I think matter. When it fails, as it must, as it is obsessed with doing, it provides a narrative and visual language for reflecting on its failures. My investment in Batman is part historical accident, like anyone who finds themselves born into a tradition, and part out of respect for the quality and relevance of that tradition. So when there’s some news about an addition to the Batman universe, you’re goddam right I want to talk about its possible implications. I want to talk about everything Batman has to say.

23

Aug

Why People Aren’t Their Genitals

Some, probably many, people say that Chelsea Manning is a man because of her penis. One problem with that position is that it entails that a person is identical to their flesh. There is no room for the soul in that view of humanity, or any other conception of a person as something other than a wad of meat. 

If you ascribe to a religion like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, you should not believe that a person is merely flesh. Likewise, if you belong to secular humanist traditions that make reference to inalienable rights or the dignity of the person, you believe that a person is something in addition to flesh. I’d guess that this way of conceiving of people is so widespread because humans often experience themselves as a conscious being that is in some way distinct from their flesh. We experience ourselves willing our bodies to do things we want, and are reminded of the separation when our bodies do not do what we want. My consciousness does not seem to be a physical thing to me. Given the long standing philosophical question of the mind-body problem, I think it appears this way to lots of other people too.

If you need to talk about the penis, you could say that Chelsea Manning has a man’s body. I’m sure she is more aware of that than anyone. The disjunction between Chelsea Manning the person and the body she bears is probably why she has requested hormone replacement therapy. I don’t know—I don’t know her and I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender. If you are like me in that regard, I would recommend reading about the experiences of transgender people to better understand the Manning case.

09

Aug

Obama Declassifies ‘War On Terror’ Legal Briefs

In response to a spate of criticism, the president this week called a press conference to disclose the previously secret interpretations of the law used by the administration in its prosecution of the war on terror.

"I’ve got the briefs right here," said President Obama, removing his right hand from a coat pocket and holding up his middle finger. "Attorney General Eric Holder personally oversaw their writing and I have complete faith that they are consonant with the principles laid out in the Constitution," he added, slowly rotating from right to left to show the lone erect finger to the room of reporters and legal scholars. 

"If you have any questions, I ask you to direct them to the esteemed jurist on my left," he added, pulling out his left hand, which was also flipping the bird.

Though shocking, op-ed columnists have rushed to point out previous examples of similar behavior. E. J. Dionne reminded readers that George W. Bush “poked his tongue in his cheek and curled one hand to give the impression he was sucking a big ol’ cock” while being questioned about the invasion of Iraq, and George F. Will observed that even as venerable a leader as Lincoln would “cross his forearms in an ‘X’ shape and slam them vociferously upon his crotch when challenged on the wisdom of privileging the dignity of the slave over the sanctity of the state.”

As members of the press asked questions, Obama would appear to discover something below the podium, then raise up his hand still in the middle finger position. “Want to ask about drone policy, or the NSA surveillance programs, or how I said I would close Gitmo?” he continued, pulling out both fingers yet again. 

"Great question," he said, stroking his chin with a middle finger.

When asked about the fate of Edward Snowden the president appeared distracted by a makeup case for which his middle finger served as the lid. He used the other hand, also flicking off everyone in attendance, to apply the imaginary makeup to his face.

"It was weird, sure," said a Washington Post reporter who asked to be unnamed. "But I’m just glad the culture of secrecy is starting to break."

19

Jul

Dadding and Vidya Games

The Last of Us, a video game sort of like The Road but with a girl instead of a boy in the supporting role, has, as any serious video game should, attracted its share of critique concerning the representation of women. I’m not going to try to adjudicate that conversation—while I admire much of what the game does I am loath to be one of those horrible dudes who tells women why they shouldn’t be mad—but it touches on a parallel topic I can talk about. The central relationship in The Last of Us of is not romantic but paternal, casting the video game mechanic of “shoot a guy before he shoots you” within the father-daughter relationship. While there are perspectives on this discussion I am not equipped to discuss, I can tell you about the part I am: what it’s like to be a father to a little girl. 

My daughter—our first child—is six weeks old. I am insanely in love with her. I, like most dads, would do anything for her. I would kill for her. Or die for her. I’d drink my urine so she could have the last of our water. Whatever—I’d do anything for her. Realistically, I have to do something much worse. I go to work and don’t see her enough. At the end of the day I have to remember how precious our time together is when I’m already tired and irritable and painfully aware of the conversion rate between my mortal coil and her access to healthcare and education. There are difficult things that a dad does but they are more grueling than gruesome.

Poetry is a perennial companion of humans because it gives us a medium for expressing the intensity of love, a thing that defies everyday language. Fatherly love is like that too. But the trend of serious video games—well, a trend of Western culture over the last few thousand years—has been to communicate intensity of feeling and the failure of language through metaphors of violence. When we try to complete the sentence, “I love you so much that—” we don’t have to land on an expression of violence. That is a habit, one that is both cause and effect of the violence we do outside of metaphor. Maybe you would walk five hundred miles, and then walk five hundred more, to express your love. Maybe you’d change a bunch of diapers or stay awake all night to make sure she’s breathing in her sleep. Maybe you’d suffer the break between language and love without striking out to prove that it exists. 

This is the beachhead on which stories—told through video games or other means—break one way or the other: do they require that men express love as violence? Blockbuster video games are so monoculturally dedicated to first person shooters that it is easy for an observer to conflate “video games” and “shooters,” but there are already millions of other ways to engage players that don’t boil down to putting a dot at the right place at the right time. Even Day Z, a brutally realistic zombie survival game, subverts its shooter origins by placing survival so unflinchingly at its core that you can never merrily blast your way out of your problems. Do that and you’re low on precious ammo: a new problem. There is no pre-existing narrative there to catch you, and so you return to the kind of slow, patient, anxious work that is the real expression of care.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy shooters with dad themes. No, I really like the feeling these games give me. I loved the first two Bioshock games, in which you rescue afflicted little girls and either save them or harvest them for resources. When I annihilated the bad guys attacking my little sisters it felt great. That feeling is intoxicating. I can understand why violence is so seductive as a shorthand for paternal love. But, like, come on dude. You don’t want your kid living in a world where everyone else is waiting to express their love of family by killing yours. (And here I can’t help thinking of the murder of Trayvon Martin). It’s fun as hell to mow down splicers in Bioshock but that pleasure is completely unrelated to the actual joys of being a parent.

Everything I’ve said so far applies equally to a child of any gender. At the point where the imagination turns back into reality—where, for example, the fantasy of honorable defense becomes the killing of an unfamiliar youth—gender and race matter again. Zombies aren’t going to attack my daughter, but statistics show that it is frighteningly possible a man will. So I am wary of enjoying too much the pleasure of righteous violence when I know that there is another side to it, and that women have historically—and currently—been on the side opposite me. 

I don’t want to play a dad sim, and I’m not attributing to video games the kind of sorcerous power that animate pig’s bladder Wayne LaPierre thinks they have. Video games are part of culture. They don’t exercise demonic mind control but they also aren’t separate from the reproduction of ideology (I’m looking at you, gun culture). As both a game developer and a dad all I’m asking is that fatherhood—or if we want to get crazy, masculinity—not be cast as the ability to kill a guy on the tv. Dadding is not that simple or easy. It, unlike most shooters, is not a game for teen boys. I believe in video games as a medium capable of examining complex experiences like parenthood. I think we have nailed down the part about wanting to defend our kids. Now I’d like to see us represent what dadding is really about.

09

May

God Really Does Hate Us All

Yesterday Full Stop reprinted my love letter to Slayer in memoriam of Jeff Hanneman. That sparked this amazing exchange.image