Scorsese vs Marvel Studios

Scorsese vs ThorVeteran film director Martin Scorsese could scarcely ask for better publicity for his new film, The Irishman, than picking a fight with the box office powerhouse that is Disney's Marvel Studios. In an interview for Empire magazine, Scorsese was asked about Marvel movies and replied:

I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

This is a much more interesting statement than it might first appear. Before delving into it, however, it is worth acknowledging that Scorsese would never have had anywhere near as much coverage for his new feature if he had not decided to position himself against one of Disney's two big-ticket purchases both of which were acquired to fill a gap in the media corporation's portfolio, which was always lacking in action franchises. I don't think it greatly matters if this is a planned PR manoeuvre from the 76-year-old director, or a lucky striking of gold by one of Empire's writers, either way it's a win for both parties since the battle line it draws guarantees more attention for both of them, and mobilises the legions of Marvel fans for free publicity, since negative reactions online – especially those guaranteed to travel far – have nearly the same effect as ploughing millions of dollars into marketing.

But I do not mean to suggest that Scorsese is disingenuous in his remarks – indeed, as critic Jed Pressgrove remarked to me on Twitter, there really is nothing enormously surprising about these comments in terms of the discourse surrounding films. That's because it has long been a tenet of what might be called 'serious' cinema that there are two competing forces in the movie theatres. This 2016 blog post by filmmaker Rob Hardy poses this divide in terms of 'films' (Scorcese's 'cinema') and 'movies' (Scorcese's 'Not cinema'), and there are hundreds of similar claims spanning decades. What is at heart here are implicit aesthetic values and the practices that those aesthetic values belong to. Representatives of cinema or film are claiming the artistic high ground – often falling just short of outright saying "we are art, you are not", but always implying it – and contrasting their craft against 'movies', which are not actively represented by anyone in this argument but merely the mass market shadow of the practice that Hardy calls 'filmmaking'.

When film critic Roger Ebert declared that videogames could not be art, or when disgruntled gamers declared Dear Esther was 'not a game', these claims were undergirded by specific aesthetic values and, along with this, participation in the practices that sustain and embed those values. Dear Esther was 'not a game' to anyone for whom 'games' were either the aesthetic pursuit of victory or of problem-solving, an aesthetic camp explored beautifully by game scholar Jesper Juul in his book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Coming at the matter from this territory in the aesthetic landscape all but requires the erection of a barrier: the Chinese Rooms ingenious usurpation of the components of first person shooters for something radically novel had to be 'kept out' of games because of a felt need to valorise different aesthetic values, those associating games with challenge where something like Shadow of the Colossus might be pointed to as an exemplar. This is the videogame mirror of Scorcese's 'not cinema', which is also Hardy's 'film versus movies'.

Writing centuries before either films or videogames, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant made a crucial point about our aesthetic values: that when we assert them, it is because we expect our judgements to have universal assent, or rather we behave as if they should be capable of garnering such agreement. As a result, when something transgresses our aesthetic values – when a Marvel movie is claimed to be cinema (for Scorsese) or Dear Esther is claimed to be a game (for certain gamers), there is an aesthetic transgression, and just as we would baulk at a moral transgression, there is potential for outcry, opposition, and argument. The disagreement, however, is usually hollow since two positions divided by distinct values never connect in any meaningful way. As Kant observed: it is a 'commonplace' that everyone has their own taste, and also that 'there is no disputing of taste'.

Thus there is no need or purpose to Marvel Studios' myriad fans stepping up to the plate to try to defend the Marvel Cinematic Universe by pointing to examples of movies in that corporate megatext that meet Scorsese's apparent definition of cinema in terms of conveying psychological experiences... as Hardy puts it, the question goes to intention not outcome, and I would further suggest that what lies at root here is participation in a particular tradition, a distinct practice of making and engaging with films that is not rooted in entertainment, for all that it is frequently marketed successfully as that. Besides all this, Scorsese is surely correct to compare everything that comes out of Disney's corporate process to theme parks, since this is the practice that the House of Mouse pioneered and is still engaged in: an applied psychology of commercial entertainment rooted in meticulous brand management. In this regard, Scorsese's point is nearly impossible to rebuff and comes down to a claim about the limits of authorial intent: whatever filmmakers might achieve in a Marvel Studios movie cannot change the fact that what has been made is the result of a tightly-managed corporate process of engineering both brand and entertainment value on an industrial scale. Our only choice is whether this matters for our enjoyment of what results – and this depends upon which practices we ourselves are engaging in when we go to the cinema.


Silk is About... The Designer's Notes

Silk Notes

Silk is About... was a Designer's Notes serial in five parts that ran here at Only a Game from August 27th to September 24th 2019. It examined the thematic influences behind the game Silk, and pondered the game from a historical, personal, and political perspective. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. Silk is about... 200AD
  2. Silk is about...1984
  3. Silk is about... Glorantha
  4. Silk is about... Religion
  5. Silk is about... Brexit

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.


Silk is About... Brexit

BrexitSilk is my Brexit game. There, I said it.

Silk is about Brexit because Silk is about how people live together and, perhaps even more so, how they fail to live together. I see in 200AD an allegory of 2000AD, lessons we can learn and did not learn, and are still not learning.

I am not committed to either side of the Brexit ‘debate’ (‘battle’ is perhaps more accurate, since a debate assumes a conversation entirely absent in this matter). I understand the argument that sees in leaving the European Union an opportunity for national self-determination, even if I myself could not vote for leaving because of my suspicion – now amply proven correct – that voting to leave would not spark the essential political dialogue required for the United Kingdom to acquire a viable, shared national identity. Instead, it deepened a previously ignored divide. Knee-jerk racism lines up on one side alongside those who had more honourable reasons for desiring a departure from the EU, while political one-upmanship and the certainty that everyone has it wrong except those who agree with you overwhelm all sides and leave us no closer to having a sense of what our country could or should be.

In Silk, the desire for self-determination is echoed in the imperial battles the game makes central to the Warlord and the Rebel. Settlements defend themselves in Silk when they feel threatened... today, nations do the same. The potential for military power to be abused was always present, and has little to do with the reasons people desire to defend themselves from threats from the outside. Then as now, what starts as defence ends as empire-building. Many Brits still feel like they are part of the British Empire even though in truth we are only offered the choice of being a neighbour to the European Empire or a vassal of the US Empire. But that desire to make your own nation everything it can be is not as morally wrong as liberal opponents to national pride make out. As Mary Midgley observed, we are entitled to put our own interests first; every species does this, and doing so need not – and indeed usually does not – devolve into utter selfishness, even if that is an ever-present risk.

What risks getting lost in this perspective, however, is that co-operation is almost always in our best interest. In Silk, this is represented by the Caravan itself, where a hugely diverse range of cultures and ethnicities come together to try and succeed in the challenge of surviving in the wilderness in the Traveller, or striving to profit from trade in the Noble. The game intentionally has a little casual racism in some of the Advisor’s responses to the world they are travelling... the unfamiliar culture will always provoke a suspicious reaction, after all. I learned so much about the complexities of racism reading Michael Moorcock’s astonishing Between the Wars quartet, and Isabelle Stenger’s “The Curse of Tolerance” deepened my understanding of this even further. Racism and opposition to racism both block co-operation in their own ways, but the lesson of the Caravan in Silk is that we gain more from co-operating than from going it alone. That’s not an argument for staying in the EU as such: it’s an argument for not letting a fight about whether we should endorse one ideology or another tear us apart as a nation. And that’s just as true in the United States as is it is in the United Kingdom.

So when I say that Silk is my Brexit game, I’m not saying that Silk is offering an answer to the problems of Brexit, but rather that in this game I am reflecting on the cultural problems – in the UK and elsewhere – that led us to Brexit, and that are not solved by leaving Europe, nor by remaining. We have lost our sense of the benefits of co-operating, either because we demonise those from other cultures we see as ‘different’ (especially Muslims), or because we have lost respect for our fellow citizens and are no longer willing to let them participate in democracy because we are so convinced that they are ‘wrong’. I see disaster on both paths. Silk is, in a way that is woven into the tapestry of every game of it that anyone plays, an opportunity to reflect upon our interdependence with those around us, and to consider different paths.

We can be more than divided nations squabbling against each other, if that’s what we wish. The question, as Silk asks every player to decide at every juncture, is always: what will we choose...?

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.


Silk is About... Religion

Sapadbizes CoinWe don’t talk about religion, right? That’s what ‘secular’ has come to mean... we don’t talk about religion. Unless of course you want to make criticisms against religion, which are still fair game – indeed, are all but encouraged among the intellectually respectable. Liberals are only credible if they are willing to speak out against Christian nonsense, while conservatives positively thrive upon their distrust of Muslims... So we end up in this strange situation where ‘not talking about religion’ becomes a blanket cover for racism because religion and non-religion are intimate elements of culture, and so if all you’re permitted to do is to speak ill of religion, you have created an environment where racism not only festers, it achieves a kind of illusion of intellectual honesty that, in my lifetime at least, distrust of skin colour has always been mercifully denied.

Because it’s set in 200AD, Silk can be about religion without dealing with the immense baggage of contemporary religions. Islam has yet to be founded, while Christianity and Judaism are a very small part of the world of 200AD, which is dominated by what we tend to unjustly collect under term ‘Pagan religion’ or, perhaps even more misleadingly, ‘polytheism’. The civic religion of Rome and ancient Greece spreads throughout more than half of the Ancient Silk Road, and collides in the Kushan Empire with eastern Buddhism, which is still a very young religion at this time. It’s also worth noting that the very term ‘religion’ has no real analogue at this time: our capacity to talk about cultural mythos as a package deal emerged via the Enlightenment... the Romans had no equivalent term at all. ‘Religio’, the root of the word, carries the meaning of a sense of duty or responsibility in 200AD, and mostly in the sense of social obligations.

Religions that are huge today are minorities in 200AD. What we call today the Hindu traditions are not entirely absent from the game, but what we usually associate with these spiritual paths are definitely on the fringes – you can sacrifice to Shiva in the Kushan Empire, for instance, but most temples there are dedicated to the Lion Goddess Nana, whom nobody remembers today. In the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrian fire temples are the core of civic religion, and although Islam is still several centuries away you can feel the connectivity between the Parthian Empire and Islamic culture in many ways... like everything else in life, religions have a history, they are not as isolated and static as we tend to imagine, and in 200AD this is far more evident than it is today.

Not that long ago, I was interviewed about the portrayal of religion in videogames by a PhD student, in part because my game Kult: Heretic Kingdoms had on the surface a vehemently anti-religious stance. (The actual story in that regard is much more nuanced, but this isn’t the place to explore it...) One of the things I took from that discussion was the manner in which a huge aspect of the portrayal of religion in videogames is the priest or priestess as the healer – a debt from Dungeons & Dragons that seems to have been tangentially influenced by Hammer House of Horror movies of all things! I became interested in finding another approach to this issue. I didn’t set out to make a game about religion, but once I knew I was making a game about 200AD I knew that it was inevitably going to be about religion in addition to whatever else it was about.

As I came to develop the class of Ritegiver in Silk, I began to see them as an opportunity for a different way of approaching religion in games. The Ritegiver is, in effect, the diplomat: by being able to perform rites at different shrines and temples, the Ritegiver allows the player to make friends with people in new areas, to stave off rebellion by performing sacrifices that help bind them to their captured citadels through civic religion, or simply to ask for aid from strangers. I leave it to the player how they interpret this – cynically, as social manipulation, or idealistically, as a marker for what religions do best when they do not lose their way: binding people together into communities of care. Both ways of understanding religion have some truth to them, and always have.

Silk isn’t a game about religion as most people understand the term. That’s because it’s about the religions of 200AD. I happen to believe that this could tell us more about religion today than it might first appear.

Next, the final part: Brexit


Silk is About... Glorantha

RuneQuest TableauKnowing I wanted to make a game in tribute to The Lords of Midnight, the question was: how? Because making a direct spiritual successor to it was clearly not going to work – Legions of Ashworld had already tried, and it had struggled because it was solely fans of the original who could possibly appreciate it. No, if I was going to create a game that spoke to why The Lords of Midnight was important to me, I was really going to be making a game about a square-based map. It was mapping, and using other people’s maps, that made those early game experiences for me, and this was especially so for The Bard’s Tale, which I painstakingly mapped by hand with graph paper, and then took great pleasure in my friends using my maps to complete the game after me.

So I knew I wanted to make this tribute game about exploration, but I also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to experiment with radical unexplored possibilities in narrative design, and for this I had another influence: King of Dragon Pass. I had always regretted ‘missing out’ on RuneQuest, possibly the only classic 1980s RPG that I never got to play. King of Dragon Pass let me participate in Gregg Stafford’s extraordinary game by having been set in the world of Glorantha and being, in a very tangible sense about Glorantha. To play King of Dragon Pass is to enter into a fantasy world that’s not like any others out there... it’s more Bronze Age than Medieval, it’s a world where gods and spirits are tangible and pressing in on mortal life. David Dunham’s game is an incredible achievement, one that came to my attention because my colleague at International Hobo in the 2000s, Ernest Adams, waxed lyrical about its achievements in narrative design.

But what I really fell in love with in King of Dragon Pass was the Clan Ring, the set of people who advise you as to what decisions you could be taking as the game progresses. I became obsessed with how this worked, and dug into its designed systems and internal language (OSL), becoming ever more convinced that what was ‘just’ another clever extra feature in that particular game could become the central element of a narrative design that was based upon an entirely different kind of play. Perhaps, the kind of play that would see the player striking out across three million square miles of wilderness....

The Clan Ring in King of Dragon Pass became the Advisors in Silk. They’re your party, you hire them to your Caravan, and once you hire them they’re with you until the end of the game. That wasn’t how the design began – for a while, the paper design allowed the Advisors to die if they failed a skill check spectacularly. But as time went on, I came to realise that what I was doing with Silk in terms of letting the player explore the cultures of 200AD (just as King of Dragon Pass lets you explore the culture of Glorantha), was stronger in some ineffable sense if your Caravan was more than just a set of interchangeable pawns. The Caravan is your family in the game... and by necessity, it’s going to be a family of misfits, just like every party of adventurers in RuneQuest. That’s something that speaks to me as a player of games, and a lover of the strange. It’s why even though Silk is set in 200AD, it’s also in a strange but understandable way, about Glorantha.

Next: Religion


Silk is About... 1984

Lords of MidnightIn 1984 and 1985, amazing things were happening in the British videogames industry. The following year, Japan would overshadow this with titles like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda that transformed videogames forever by having the ability to preserve player progression (the genesis of save games), but for these two years nobody anywhere in the world can match the inventiveness of British bedroom coders.

One of these stories is well known... David Braben and Ian Bell made Elite, which with its vast feeling of player freedom would go on to directly influence Grand Theft Auto, and thus give birth to the open world genre as we now know it. But even that’s not the whole story, because Elite is a descendent of tabletop role-playing games, specifically Traveller and Space Opera, and it was the infinite agency of the tabletop RPG that inspired Elite’s radical approach to digital agency. It’s always a mistake to think videogames sprung into life from nowhere... they flowed down the river of artworks like everything else.

Two other great precursors to the open world game that came out of these two years are both from 1985: Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid – which I still suspect was an influence upon Grand Theft Auto’s car stealing (although I have not yet proved it), and Paul Woakes and Bruce Jordan’s Mercenary, that took Elite’s wireframe world and made a fantastic story out of it (Surely the faction system in the original GTA was inspired by this game...?). Paradroid is actually my favourite game of the last century, but I don’t feel quite the sense of debt towards it as I do to another 1984 classic, perhaps because I got to work with Andrew Braybrook and Steve Turner in the waning years of Graftgold, and so our stories already intersected in some way.

The last of the four harbingers of the open world is Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight, the best adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to never have had the license. Singleton was not influenced by tabletop RPGs as far as I can tell, but was just interested in how to take the two threads of Tolkien’s epic – the adventure story and the epic war – and represent them in the 48K of the ZX Spectrum, Europe’s most iconic home computer. I was spellbound by The Lords of Midnight, even though it was actually terribly difficult to play, and even more difficult to play well. My appreciation of what it achieved grew when I started giving talks about the history of games, and peaked when I finally sacked Ushgarak (let’s not call it the Dark Tower of Mordor...) in Chris Wild’s outstanding port of the game.

Singleton did not rest on his laurels. The open-world-before-open-worlds concept was revisited in a sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge (which also has a fantastic port by Chris Wild) and later in Midwinter and its sequel, games that moved into polygonal 3D and were equally astounding, perhaps even more so, since they attempted the immersive presence we now expect from first person games before the hardware was in any way up to the task of rendering them. But there was just something about that square-based world in The Lords of Midnight that maintained its magic. It’s a mystical wonder that can also be found in Eye of the Beholder and The Bard’s Tale, which also built their world on squares, although both had so much more computational resources available that they cannot possibly count as the technical achievement that Mike Singleton’s classic was.

I felt a debt of honour to him. I don’t really know why, but I always have. In the 1990s, when I was working on the Discworld games, I tried to make a game in that style, but it was impossible to make the argument for it then. It’s not that much easier now, to be honest! But at least now we have a thriving indie community who sometimes welcome the strange and wonderful into their hearts. So I made Silk, to pay off that debt to Mike Singleton. It’s why even though the game is set in 200AD, it’s also inextricably about 1984.

Next: Glorantha


Silk is About... 200AD

Silk NotesSilk is about 200AD.

Silk is about 1984.

Silk is about Glorantha.

Silk is about religion.

Silk is about Brexit.

Five seemingly contradictory statements, all absolutely true. The fact that all these claims are true doesn’t spring from any conceptual gymnastics, it flows naturally from the way I came to design and ultimately implement Silk, with the incredible help of Nathan (the programmer) and Jamie (the artist), and many others (like Becky, the portrait artist; Chris, the composer; and Patrick and Sean, the producers).

That games are about things doesn’t sound controversial, but in an odd way it is. That’s because the entertainment value of a game (or a film, for that matter) is the moral value we elevate above all others for them – provided a game entertains, all other priorities are rescinded. That’s why games are a multi-billion dollar industry today: not because they are a vibrant, extravagant, hugely inventive artform (although they are), but because they entertain. And who doesn’t like being entertained? By definition, it’s something we all want.

But it’s not enough of a reason to make a game like Silk, because the people who might be entertained by a game like this are not the same people who are going to be entertained by, say, Grand Theft Auto, even though the GTA franchise and Silk have their roots in exactly the same places: the British games of 1984 and 1985 that invented the open world before anyone had thought of calling it that. No, Silk is a niche game... it’s a game for players who are looking to be more than just entertained, who are willing to be challenged to take upon a new way of thinking, one quite different from those that most games present us today.

We should start by acknowledging that this is a game about 200AD. This is a time period I’ve always been enraptured by... the Roman republic has mutated into the Roman Empire, bringing the seeds of its eventual downfall. Thousands of miles east, the Han Empire are about to lose control of China as it slips into the vicious civil war known as the Three Kingdoms. And in between these two ends of the Ancient Silk Road are two other empires that people just don’t talk that much about – the Parthians, who are Rome’s bitter enemy (and whom Rome never convincingly defeated), and the Kushan Empire who rule what we now call India with a cosmopolitanism that is quite astonishing for a time two millennia before our own. To play Silk is to visit 200AD. That’s the player experience we’re offering, over and above any other themes I might have weaved into its narrative design.

I’ve been writing Designer’s Notes since 1993 for every game that I can definitively call ‘mine’ (without denying my immense dependence upon those who work alongside me). I was inspired to do so by Sandy Peterson, the designer of Call of Cthulhu (and level designer on Quake), who first made it clear to me that pretending you’re not influenced by other people’s designs is pure arrogance and folly. In this five part series of Designer’s Notes, I want to look at five things Silk is about. The first, as I’ve just discussed, is 200AD. I’m not going to say too much about that because if you want to know about 200AD you should play Silk – short of a time machine, there’s no other way of experiencing it! But the other four thematic influences upon Silk – 1984, Glorantha, religion, and Brexit – those are things you probably aren’t going to get out of just playing Silk. They require me to tell something of the story behind the game, and that’s what Designer’s Notes are ultimately about. These are the notes I want to make about the most personal game I’ve ever made.

I hope you’ll join me for this journey.

Next: 1984


The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Prime Time: A Dialogue

Prime Time was a five part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at the relationship between music and priming, Nietzsche’s books, and life within social media.

The dialogue originally ran from October 3rd to October 31st 2017. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The five parts are as follows:

  1. Nietzsche in Hypertext
  2. An Analytic Lamp-post
  3. Prime Time Culture
  4. The Hallelujah Effect
  5. Your Brain on Social Media

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment!


Babich and Bateman: Your Brain on Social Media

Last week, a discussion of media control span into the Emmy Awards. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman pick up the discussion where they left off. Contains one word some readers may find offensive.

AmygdalaBabette Babich: Last week’s conversation ended with Alan Rickman, which happens so regularly that I should add a specialization to my CV. However the reference was not to a philosophical theme, say, Augustinian eternity – Rickman’s Snape uttering the word ‘Always’ – but to analyse the 2016 Emmy Awards ‘In Memoriam’ segment, which included only one verbal eulogy (for a producer, and as the Weinstein scandal reminds us, they are hugely important).  The ‘Hallelujah Effect’ corresponds to the magic of the ‘silver screen’ mediated by or through the music. The actors offered their own tributes to themselves, in very recognizable vignettes. Thus, including the pauses that made Rickman irreplaceable, from the 2004 film Something The Lord Made, we hear Rickman in an American southern accent above the Hallelujah refrain: “I think we should remember not what we lost … but what we’ve done.” (2:06)

Chris Bateman: Less an act of grieving than a final publicity event from ‘beyond the grave’...

BB: Exactly and alas! The movements of each vignette, each memory, evoke, (this is the way priming works), recognition, and that recognition calls forth, thank you Proust, thank you Freud, if Adorno (always the killjoy) does complains about this, emotion: that is, both delight and pain, capturing the eye and keeping the viewer’s attention while Cohen’s song and Tori Kelly’s performance captures the ear and entrains the mind. The Hallelujah Effect is that kind of slam dunk.  And we are moved.

CB: In the aesthetics crowd, there was the example (I think Kendall Walton gives it, but I might be mistaken) of the philosophy professor who had gone to a sappy B movie, and still found himself welling up with tears at the conclusion, despite utterly detesting the terrible quality of the film in question. This was raised in connection with our emotional responses to fictional events, but that particular example is almost certainly Hallelujah Effect... the use of the music in the finale almost certainly provoked a response above and beyond what the fictional storytelling had managed, or rather, failed to manage.

BB: We are prime-able, manipulable: we can be played, and Edgar Allen Poe writes about this when he tells us, play by play, the technique he used to write The Raven, inasmuch as all of it can be done on cue. Of course, in the case of poetry, one has to be a reader for the techniques Poe emphasizes to really work. Today we read less, focusing more and more on our screens: we live in them, as I repeat these days, we are soaking ‘in’ them. Everything, especially our brains on social media, Twitter but not less our anxious attention to our cell phones, not just for the tweets but tricked out with apps in place of the weird but accurate terminology that Adorno used to speak of the “physiognomics” of what he called the “radio face”. Today we can talk as much as we like about ‘screen ontology’ but the phenomenon is more complex and more entrained than the simple augmentations that McLuhan and Ihde and recently Floridi suggest. We still need a little more phenomenology (beyond what some, following in fealty to Don Ihde, tend to brand as ‘post-phenomenology’) and a lot more hermeneutics and, of course, we also need a lot more discussion. It was to try to start discussion on some of the more complex details that I sought to add a few easy to miss questions about the nature of desire, male and female, just to highlight a certain material nature of ontology, in this case on the nature and working of objectification. Which is where Leonard Cohen and k.d. lang come in.

CB: With respect, that isn’t ‘all you did’ in your book, since you also packaged the entire conceptual apparatus in a way that made it easily accessible by building it around this one song, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – and that is a significant task, and one that should not be overlooked. I am always looking for these ways to take philosophical ideas and present them in a way that breaks down a little of their inaccessibility to a wider audience... I would count this as a significant contribution.

BB: But if you ask, as you rightly do, hey what is the Hallelujah Effect? Isn’t there a spare and sweet definition, a WFF [Well-formed formula], if we like, the answer is as clear and distinct as it is likely to be disappointing. Thus I tried to avoid simply appropriating Adorno’s laconic two-word definition: standardized ubiquity.  But that standardized ubiquity is still the answer.  What is on offer all around us today is only the same thing, presented in various ways.

SunsetCB: Obviously I work in a commercial entertainment medium, videogames, so I see this over and over again in the marketplace for games... and it’s funny, because gamers are wont to ask for originality and inventiveness – and do indeed have a taste for it – but the numbers that would go out of their way to buy that originality, that inventiveness are so few (if there are any) that this whole underside of the market, the videogame equivalent to arthouse cinema or off-Broadway theatre, is reduced to a lottery. Because the big games are the games that sell precisely because of their standardized ubiquity. 

BB: That is intriguing – and I recall when Pokémon GO appeared wondering if this would spawn a range of Pokémon alternate realities. I just joked with my students that an app to dress one’s dates for the evening, especially useful I would think on blind dates, or better said: social media or dating app mediated dates, would liven things up: one could date a knight in shining armour or tweak one’s companion so that she would look like some Hollywood starlet, or, we could even bring back Alan Rickman as I argue elsewhere. I am not entirely serious because, of course, and as you have also argued, with our phones to distract us we are already retuning our virtual surround whenever present company is not captivating enough by checking our phones, clicking, seriatim, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. I am worried about the coming corporate branded version of my more role-playing, aesthetic idea, because virtual reality already exists in a minor way anytime one uses Google maps.

CB: I would argue that even paper maps were enough for virtual reality – there is not, after all, any kind of straight line to find in the space between Montana and Saskatchewan, or Indonesia and Papua New Guinea...  

BB: I was also suggesting that we might gamify reality – taking off on my former student Jane McGonigal’s powerful insight that ‘reality is broken’ – Mark Zuckerberg just channelled her point by saying that reality is ‘limited’ – at least on the level of the gamer who prefers a grander, better, she would say ‘super-better’ reality. But where I am keen on the aesthetic possibilities (these are hardly realized) we are often limited to contest-style gamification, and this is one of the worries I have with some of the suggestions Ian Bogost makes, adding agonistic elements, red team vs. blue team – and now we are back to elections or again, and more uncomfortably, Brexit. Trump’s America First (which of course means Trump and his 1% buddies first and foremost as the disaster capitalism currently in play in Puerto Rico and elsewhere doing relief efforts and ‘clean up’ and privatizing utilities as they go all too obviously illustrates) is part of this competitive spirit.

CB: I’m not sure if you aren’t misreading some of Ian’s sarcasm, since he is staunchly anti-gamification, and indeed complained that ‘gamification is bullshit’. It’s funny, since despite a lot of noise being made about ‘gamification’ (both positively and negatively), my chief concern in this regard is with the gamification of games. Huizinga and Caillois were concerned about the decline of the play element in culture within the twentieth century, and Caillois is explicit in terms of this happening through the cultural deployment of competition… in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a disturbing decline in the play element of games. Yet players seem unperturbed – anything (perhaps) to alleviate the boredom of not having something to do.

BB: Even the ways we might avail ourselves to hack our boredom, make uninteresting tasks more interesting (I am still holding out for the chance to spice up social interactions by adding Alan Rickman in our visual surround here and there as opposed to random Pikachus), still leave us – and here we are back to Nietzsche – needing to learn to speak with one another.  I find it instructive that Nietzsche defines this common compact, this very social contract, as the necessity to deceive one another according to fixed convention.  Not any lie will do as a polite or genuine or friendly or collegial (take your pick according to any given situation) reply to the question “How are you?”

CB: I often take people aback by actually answering that question, which is not what is expected, although so often there is not time. Our familiar social rituals become ephemeral handshakes... I acknowledge that you are there, and that will suffice because it always has.

BB: And yet Sherry Turkle, we talked about her in an earlier dialogue, and she is hardly the only one although she does get the lion’s share of attention (or once upon a time she did) points out that we ‘acknowledge’ one another less and less. We look past other people as we look past the world hunting Pokémon and just this excluding capacity of consciousness or focus will be a boon for Augmented Reality.  AdsWe have been playing with GPS and Google for so long that we automatically play their game their way, decoding the ‘augments’ superimposed upon the world: this locale features shirts this one serves lattes. But, because this advertising, only corporations that subscribe will be featured.

CB: One of the factors leading to me giving up Pokémon GO next week is the way it is encouraging me to hide from the local community in my park because I want to take control of an in-game Gym situated within that physical space. The game has on occasions brought me together with strangers, which I value, but the intrusion of Turkle's ‘alone together’ is something of a deal breaker for me.

BB: Turkle sees this (as do other social anthropologists and psychologists) by looking at children interacting with their parents. There are microbids for attention, micromoments of bids for acknowledgement, which are neglected in fractions of a second with consequences that last a lifetime. Thus The Hallelujah Effect looks at a phenomenon that we know, one that works on us, one to which we are abandoned and which we ourselves use, but which – such is the nature of corporate advertisement and industry interest – mostly uses us. I try to read that complex effect via Adorno and thus to raise in a fashion apart from Roger Scruton’s massive animus anti-Adorno, the question of Adorno’s insights as these are also on offer in Marcuse, in Anders, in Benjamin, and articulate them for us today as I find it striking how very loyal we are to the effect of the effect as it were. In a decidedly late-capitalist and stubbornly we’re gonna prop it up no matter what the market does, pro-capitalist era, we love what manipulates us and will swear with our last breath that we have complete free will in everything. Thus the biggest effect of the Hallelujah Effect seems to be our loyalty to branding as such; that’s why the ads are so important to VR/AR.

Disney Star WarsCB: Hence my questions and issues with the fact that ‘All Roads Lead to Disney’ (in boardgames, it is ‘All Roads Lead to Hasbro’)... I find myself quite troubled by Disney’s acquisition of The Muppets, Marvel, Star Wars – and no doubt more popular brands to come. And it is not that I do not respect the work that Disney does in the medium of film, incidentally, since there are a great many films to have come from that corporation that I admire and continue to admire. Some artworks (and videogames prepares you for this realisation) require considerable investment to even happen. But Star Wars, for instance, means something different as a corporate brand whose raison d’etre is to make money than it did when it was a personally-owned brand (with corporate backing, of course – else we would not have found it in the first place!). In the prior arrangement, the brand made money as a side effect of being what it was, which was at least three things: a tribute to the adventure media of the mid-twentieth century, a clever reworking of Joseph Campbell’s insights into classical mythology, and a political allegory. Now, if Disney-branded Star Wars movies manage to achieve any of these things (and I’ve no idea, as I do not wish to participate with the surrogate franchise) they do so in spite of the conditions of their creation. And that troubles me. It troubles me that critique of the US as an empire is now unlikely to come from one of the places it once did. It troubles me that entertainment value seems to have become one of our highest values. And it troubles me that nobody else cares. What’s more, that concern is in no way limited to Star Wars... I am just as troubled by our relationship with social media.

BB: These are powerful points, and I am as concerned, oddly, with the hijacking of Marvel characters which are flattened when made into films, exactly the opposite of what one would expect. The same thing, more powerfully, holds true of DC characters, not Batman but Superman, which is perhaps fine because the figure twisted out of control even in the comic book medium. As for social media, nobody finds it the least bit paradoxical, not philosophers and certainly not Facebook users – and apart from Facebook, think of Google – that one is invited to work on one’s own ad experience, giving conscious feedback in addition to the standard tracking already at work, so to ensure its best tailoring to one’s interests and concerns.  One can be asked for input on the kind of ads, Twitter does this as well, that one would ‘like’ to see. But, it seems to me, one would like not to see any ads at all. One would, as Žižek’s Bartlebyesque T-shirt of the moment says, prefer not to. But Bartleby (and Žižek) have turned out not to be enough. Thus to say that one would like not to see any ads might require a new Alice — perhaps a Through the Looking Glass of the Matrix — but we are lacking an author capable of writing that Alice today, and to echo one of Alan Rickman’s last blue caterpillar lines, to us, his Absolem: “Do mind your step.” Indeed, minding one’s step is the least of it. It is a long way down… 

CB: The trouble with the analogy with The Matrix, and Žižek says this explicitly in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, is that it was never just a choice between the red pill or the blue pill, between accepting the illusion or escaping it ‘into reality’... the phantasy of escape from Plato’s cave – which in India had never been a plausible dream, because amongst the Dharmic traditions was the wisdom to recognise that ‘all is Maya’. Thus Žižek says:

The Matrix is a machine for fictions; but these are fictions which already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions which regulate it, you lose reality itself. I want a third pill... a pill that would enable me to perceive... not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.

And here again, my concerns are less with the possibility of our biology-psychology being hijacked by the Hallelujah Effect – because as a game designer these kinds of legerdemain are part of my own stock-in-trade – but the question of what we are allowing ourselves to notice, Spice Must Flowand what is beyond our ability to become aware of, and to what extent those with the commercial power and influence are committed to merely ensuring that ‘the spice must flow’, as Frank Herbert expertly allegorised capitalist empire in Dune.

BB: Brilliant! And Žižek himself brings Lacan to bear on this, rightly so, filmic imaginary. And here notice that rather than a film adaptation of Dune such as we might have had years ago (or perhaps there was one and nobody noticed rather like the terrible adaptations of Bradbury and the nonexistent adaptations of Ursula LeGuin that I am still waiting for) all we got were film after film of videogames on screen, i.e., Star Wars. But part of the point you are making is that we do not mind, and that we are more than we think ‘ensuring’, as you say, that ‘the spice must flow’.

CB: There was a Japanese anime made of Earthsea by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, although LeGuin was merely polite about it, and it’s safe to say that it was one of those adaptations – like Peter Jackson’s reinterpretation of The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings – that rather sadly erases the identity of the original material.

BB: To my mind, we ought to find this paradoxical, we ought to be up in arms against the commandeering of our consciousness precisely because of the small, the very tiny requisite needed for the purveyors of the Hallelujah Effect to effect the effect as such is a fraction of a second of our time. That is all they need and still they take minutes and hours, to control the way we think, while urging us to think that our will is utterly at our disposal, utterly free. Which we buy. Thus we live daily the very first line of Herbert Marcuse, who was like Günther Anders a student of Heidegger and who wrote about nothing other than the ways and means of purveying and living a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” in his to-date still unbettered book on Western consumerist society (folks find Baudrillard’s The System of Objects tough going, after all), that is, and you really only need the title: One-Dimensional Man.

My thanks to Babette for all the correspondence that went into these dialogues, and to you for reading them.