Fun with Fascism

A blog-letter to Chris Billows of The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. This letter contains discussion of death statistics which some people may find distressing.

Banksy.Flower ThrowerDear Chris,

Fascists! Fascists everywhere! They're after your jobs, they're after your homes, they're after your unborn children! They want to take away your rights, they want to take away your healthcare, they want to take away your very lives! Oh the terrible things they do, these fascists, and the worse things they want to do - we must rise up and force the State to come crashing down with all the power of the law and its enforcers so that the fascists can be quelled and dispelled. In short, we must become fascists or else the fascists will win!

Many thanks for your blog-letter, Too Comfortable to Consider Politics, which puts me back in dialogue with a rather old version of myself, 2006's younger model, who was still willing to write about Temperament Theory. Why did I stop...? It wasn't that I thought this model had lost its heuristic value, it is still a great tool for the kind of cartoon thought experiments that go on in Considering Politics, and I certainly don't consider Big 5 to have solved any of the methodological flaws that bedevil these kinds of personality inventories. But I came to realise that mainstream psychologists were very defensive of their territory - despite not really having worked out what that territory was, or what a 'mainstream' version of psychology might actually look like. I thought it best to pick other battles.

I began to write more and more about philosophy, because it satisfied my desire for more complex and subtle ways of thinking, and while I did not stop reading and writing about psychological issues, I did so mainly from the perspective of Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance and Paul Ekman's emotion theories going forward. These were the most secure islands in the stormy seas of psychology, and terribly helpful for understanding how and why we play games too. But I still have conversations in terms of Temperament Theory with others who share the terminology, just as I can still talk about God with a Christian or a Hindu, or riff on materialist themes with a positivist... what we say often needs to reflect who we are speaking with. 2006-me did not need to consider this; he just wrote what he was thinking about. In the interim I have become more focused upon why I am writing, and that changes what I write about too.

I believe you are broadly correct in your analysis of the role of comfort in Western Liberal Democracy, which ever since hearing eclectic French musician's Rubin Steiner's album Say Hello to the Dawn of Paradox, I have begun (in a somewhat impish fashion) to think of as 'Industrial Liberal Fascism'. But this 'F' word is one we cannot safely use to communicate, alas, because it inconveniently means different things to different people. Originally, of course, 'Fascist' was a specific political party in Italy, and the name descends from the Italian word 'fascio', meaning just 'group'. As a crude approximation, we might take Mussolini's doctrine for national government as consisting of three key elements:

  1. A dictatorship…
  2. …where violently repressive means…
  3. …enforce an inescapable role for the state

Depending who you talk to, you’ll hear Fascism talked about as a right-wing, ultranationalist movement, or you’ll hear how liberal political advocates in the 1920s secured the rise to power of Mussolini’s fascists (both correct, by the way). Liberals in the US identify ‘fascism’ with (1) and (2) in the definition above, and conservatives with (2) and (3), by substituting ‘ideologically repressive’ for ‘violently repressive’ or by associating ‘violence’ with different acts (abortion, for instance). As a result, ‘fascist’ is an insult that can be used against left or right with equipoise, with the inevitable result that the everyone in the US can become hysterical about the rise of fascism in their nation without ever once noticing their own complicity in bringing this about.

Your allegation is that political disenfranchisement occurs because people get too comfortable, and engaging in politics is "a form of social warfare" that therefore only happens because people are forced out of their comfort zone by the loss of welfare (both in the sense of well-being, and in the sense of government programmes for supporting citizens). But this analysis, while broadly correct, perhaps misses two subtle distinctions about 'comfort' and 'politics' that I should like to tease out in reply.

Let us start with 'comfort'. We are an imaginative species - indeed, the most imaginative species we know. It gives us almost everything worthwhile in human life, but it also inevitably causes enormous problems because we can imaginatively project ourselves into other situations that we do not understand without ever once noticing our lack of understanding. Thus, for instance, the rush to provide computers to so-called 'Third World' countries. These computers have caused tremendous problems for us, but we don't like to think about that, and we prefer to see them as a source of comfort, which of course they are as well. Therefore, anyone without those computers has missed out. We ought to send those poor people abroad computers. Or, to put it another way, having reorganised these geographic regions into vassal states of our seafaring empires and gearing their economies solely for exporting resources to the 'First World' we now want to sell them 'First World' technology and increase the power and influence of profit-centred organisations like Google and Apple that it is far from obvious can be trusted at home, let alone further afield.

Similarly, I am at a loss to understand why advocates for the Trans community in the US felt it necessary to try and wield influence in British politics. My trans friends in the UK were not, in fact, crying out for this 'assistance' (although I have no trans friends under the age of 30, so perhaps younger people were?). But as a result of this attempted political intervention, the trans community has lost a great deal of support on this side of the Atlantic, and in the past five years violence against trans people has skyrocketed (in the most extreme assessment, quadrupling in that period). Not to mention the verbal abuse that US trans advocates have piled upon British lesbians and their allies (and vice versa!)... a "form of social warfare" indeed. And a heartbreaking one; as a long-time supporter of the wonderfully eclectic rag-tag alliance that flies a rainbow as its flag, it has been devastating to watch the trans and lesbian communities go to political war against each other, bringing to a savage end a co-operation that may well have been the last gasp of the civil rights movements.

Yet this depressing turn of affairs has been dwarfed by the even more bleak and dispiriting events of 2020, when the worst respiratory infection pandemic in some fifty years or so was rendered far, far more destructive and damaging by the descent of the medical discourses into a state of pseudoscience. Thus, in strict contradistinction to the urging of both epidemiologists and the WHO, the UK government let loose its duplicitous war cry of "follow the science!" before initiating a string of draconian national lockdowns that have sacrificed an entire generation's mental health and prospects, and unleashed hardship disproportionately upon our poorer citizens - all against an infection that was arguably already endemic, and all without adequate scientific monitoring to determine the terrible effects of this brutal quasi-fascist experiment. And what do you know, the point of origin of the disruption of the very research networks that could have helped us make good decisions when they were desperately needed was once again the United States, where the political left and the political right argued between a conception of the pandemic that was wildly over-exaggerated and one that was utterly dismissive, with the net result that many people who would not have died last year did in fact do so, including those middle aged people with heart disease or diabetes who died at home rather than risk going to hospital and catching an infection that was quite unlikely to have killed them.

The tragedy of SARS-CoV2 is not just what it has caused in each country, although this is devastatingly sad, but also what it has prevented happening between countries. While we do not yet have the WHO's estimated global mortality statistics for 2020, we have already had a warning from Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, about what the disruption of the support networks for malaria treatments in Africa last year will ultimately mean - namely between 10,000 and 100,000 additional deaths on top of the 400,000 that die from this disease every year, the vast majority of them babies and toddlers. I fear we will completely ignore these casualties, brushed under the carpet as merely another unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 situation. Yet we might just as well link these heart-breaking deaths to a lack of support from their former colonial oppressors, who were too busy arguing about face masks to prove to the world, rather than to their neighbours, that black lives really do matter.

Make no mistake, this entire debacle represents the greatest collective failure of world citizens and their governments since World War II - which, to be fair, was several orders of magnitude more tragic as a global event. It is also the greatest failure of the scientific community in my lifetime, and I cannot escape the feeling that those two points are directly connected to one another. And just as in the case of US trans advocates inadvertently making the situation worse for trans people in the UK by trying to help them, the additional catastrophe that was the response to COVID-19 - the myriad harms of which will take years to fully understand - seems once again to have been caused at root by the political dysfunction of the United States, where hatred of fascism has led to a worsening of those disparate conditions claimed by either side as fascism.

I have acceded to your point about 'comfort' lessening political engagement, but my counterpoint is that comfort is a product of our imagined circumstances, not our actual circumstances. The very place where comfort was most readily available in terms of shelter, food, and entertainment was also the place where tremendous political capital was expended in the urgent battle against the double-headed coin of duofascism, which paints all our political 'enemies' as fascists while ignoring the resulting fascist tendencies in our own political demands. Thus it is fear, as it so often has been throughout history, rather than loss of comfort per se, that has been driving political crusades in the United States that have had devastating effects elsewhere in the world, whether we are talking in terms of the hatred cruelly directed at trans people, the British government's descent into quasi-fascism powered by the collapse of scientific discourse, or the soul-numbing losses of hundreds of thousands of black children whose lives, it seems, did not really matter after all.

If I leave our discussion there, it would be to fail to learn anything from the disaster of a year that was 2020, and that I could not bear. So let us turn to the other subtle point I want to discuss, that in connection to 'politics'. When you describe politics as "a form of social warfare", you are describing what currently happens under this name. Duofascism - the fascist tendencies of both antifascists and their rivals - lies behind this grotesque alternative to democracy we are currently pursuing in those parts of the world fortunate enough not to have far worse, far more oppressive, far more convincingly fascist regimes in charge. It is what I have called 'politics as war', where the purpose of political action is to defeat your enemies. And this is one of the worst conceptions of politics we could fall for, since there is almost no point at all in having democracy if you are not going to use it to negotiate a good life for everyone in our political community, which requires us to understand their visions for what a good life might be.

Democracy presumes a common political identity, a demos, as the Ancient Greeks put it. I think they had an easier job because, in the first place, these original democratic communities were only cities and therefore orders of magnitude smaller political bodies than those we wrestle with today, and in the second place, they didn't in fact offer political voice to everyone but solely to their elites. On this latter point, we are fast heading the same way, if we did not in fact already arrive there quite a while ago. When there is an authentic political community, when we belong to a demos, we can talk to one another about our needs, wants, and fears, and we can disagree productively and hence negotiate how we can each make ourselves a good life without demanding of others that which causes intolerable harm to their hopes of making a good life for themselves.

Duofascism, if we set aside the histrionic denunciation of those other fascists that are nothing like us, rests on the demand that the State must do certain things our way regardless of the harms this causes to our fellow citizens. As such, it is anti-democratic because it prevents any possibility of forming a demos. But oh, the things the United States has been able to achieve whenever it can form a united political community! Let us never forget that it was citizens of the United States like Eleanor Roosevelt that were the driving force behind the original human rights agreements during that hopeful time after the second World War when, as Michael Moorcock reports of Britain after the wars, everyone seemed to be working together to build a better life for all. Just because that didn't last is no reason for us not to try again.

These are dark times, and not just because of this particularly nasty respiratory virus and the terror that scurrilous journalists have stoked about it. But the sole thing we need to get beyond the democratic impasse is a laying down of hostilities and a re-opening of the possibility of forming political communities together. We lose sight of this all too often because 'politics as war' is what we have become accustomed to, and so we are willing to become fascists to stop fascism. But it is not the only way, and it is not a good way, nor will any good come from continuing to pursue a politics based solely upon hatred of the other side to our disturbingly mirrored political coin.

Let us try something new, or rather, something old that we can make anew. Let us give democracy a try instead.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Only a Game will return later this year.


Roger Moore’s Dangerous Teenager

A blog-letter to Jed Pressgrove of Film Quarantine as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Roger MooreDear Jed,
A short while ago, whilst working through all the James Bond movies, you declared that you were coming to the conclusion that was no such thing as a good Roger Moore Bond film. But I have quite a different take: there’s no such thing as a bad Roger Moore Bond movie - only different ways to appreciate the brilliance of Roger Moore Bond movies. Yes, they are sexist, but markedly less so than Sean Connery Bond movies. Yes, they have content that if filmed today would be outrageously racist, but they were not filmed today and the cringes of hindsight do not undo the gains for cultural inclusion these films may strangely have achieved. Indeed, so much do I rate the late Roger Moore’s stint as Bond that for our first family movie night experience, my wife and I choose these films for my three sons to share with us. Are we mad? Probably. But there is definitely method to our madness and I should like to share that with you without any attempt to persuade you that your perception of these films is mistaken. It is not. I rather suspect you just haven’t the prior experience required to enjoy these particular (very particular!) movies.

My wife is from Tennessee like you (unless I’m mistaken) and comes to Bond on my suggestion having really loved the first (and only the first) Austin Powers film. As such, the Sean Connery Bond movies were a Where’s Waldo? extravaganza for her! “It’s Doctor Evil!” she exclaimed upon seeing Blofeld for the first time because, well, of course it undeniably is. When we finished watching the first Roger Moore outing, Live and Let Die, she declared “I don’t know if that was the best movie I’ve ever seen or the worst.” That is the greatest description - and highest praise! - of Moore’s Bond films I can imagine. For you must be able to enjoy bad movies for what they are good at to love Moore as Bond. The 1981 Clash of the Titans is quite the same; it’s a masterpiece. It’s also a cinematic dumpster fire with LA Law’s Harry Hamlin totally unable to anchor his own action movie and upstaged quite inevitably by Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion menagerie.

This brings me to the first reason to love these films: Derek Meddings. A special effects genius at a time when such things required immense practical skill, Meddings is best known for his amazing work with Sylvia and Gerry Anderson on their incredible Supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. My boys and I are working through these on Saturday mornings (along with classic Doctor Who), and are currently enjoying Stingray. Meddings contributed model work to five of the seven Moore Bond films, and was Oscar-nominated for Moonraker. You can spot a Meddings model shot from a mile away, although I do wonder if you have to have watched those classic 1960s sci-fi puppet shows to truly appreciate the craft involved. Appreciation flows from our prior experience; I never appreciated shot composition until I watched Seven Samurai, still my favourite film of all time. But Kurosawa movies are brilliant in almost every way. That’s not what Moore’s tenure as Bond is about. Meddings work carries a lot of appeal for me, holding the same joy as a beautiful matte painting, which is so much more wonderful than anything you can do in CGI to my eyes. I’m so delighted Meddings won an Oscar for his work on the 1978 Superman film. He was to miniature shots what Harryhausen was to stop-motion: a legend.

Neither is Meddings the only such mythic cinematic contributor to these films. John Barry, perhaps the greatest and most influential orchestral film composer Britain has produced, does some of his best work during Moore’s run, although his work with Shirley Bassey is more striking in the earlier Bond films and his magnum opus is arguably Louis Armstrong’s "All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which I believe we both rate highly as a Bond film). I think, on balance, his score for that movie and for You Only Live Twice are a head and shoulders above his work for Roger Moore, but the British Film Institute did pick up on the score for Moonraker as one of Barry's ten best. I personally think videogame orchestral scores almost always draw from Barry when they are not instead stealing from John Williams. But the significantly insignificant difference here is that John Barry is British.

This British connection is important. Unlike my wife, I’m British, quite the mongrel actually - half English, quarter Scottish, with Italian and Belgian bloodlines also in my family history too. Roger Moore is the most British of all the Bonds, and his movies are so intimately caught up in British culture that comedian Steve Coogan could write a comedy scene in which his most enduring character (Alan Partridge from The Day to Day) recites verbally the entire opening sequence to The Spy Who Loved Me - including those lurid Maurice Binder titles - in an utterly hilarious irritable deadpan. It's worth noting, then, that Moore was the first English Bond. Connery? Scottish. Lazenby? Australian (not British). And afterwards: Dalton? Welsh. Brosnan? Irish (not British). It's only when we get to Craig that we get English again. And what a step down that is, from Moore to Craig - although presumably not for you!

Britain, of course, has an extremely chequered history from its time as a world power, which peaked in the nineteenth century, just as the United States' empire is peaking seems to be peaking in the twenty first. In 1973, when Live and Let Die arrived, Britons (especially the English, but not only...) were rather struggling to get to grips with the reality that whiteness is not Britishness. This was especially the case with respect to the burgeoning West Indian population - half a million arrived between 1948 and 1970 seeking jobs, which they were expressly invited to emigrate for but whose welcome was not always (or indeed often) warm. But there were still vanishingly few black actors on TV in the 70s. Doctor Who is one of a rather short list of shows to have had multiple black actors in key roles by Moore's debut. Britons were simply not used to watching black people in 1973. And then here is Live and Let Die - a suave, black supervillain, multiple black henchmen all with great charm - and none more so than dancer Geoffrey Holder as the quite literally marvellous Baron Samadhi. And black allies who are there for something more than just being killed! The message to spellbound Brits watching was that black people can be spies and criminal masterminds, just like white people. Yes, there’s massive influence from Blaxploitation films at work here. But the benefits for British cultural integration should not be underestimated. 

So too with Vijay Amritraj and Kabir Bedi in Octopussy. Okay, we have to endure every cringe-inducing Indian cultural stereotype imaginable - but at a time when the Indian population of Great Britain were almost entirely invisible on recorded media, here is a film saying Hindus and Silkhs can be spies and superpowered villains too. The location shots from Udaipur are among the greatest in the entire Bond movie run, although as with the miniatures shots I mentioned above it takes a certain kind of film appreciator to enjoy location shots independently of their role in the narrative. Still, watching Amritraj pal up with Moore sends a clear message that Indian people can be superspies too - and that counts for something. Please do not underestimate these gains because they are tied up with casual racism... acceptance that Britishness need not entail whiteness begins with films like these, and while I do not know what black and Asian people in the 1970s made of them, the predominantly white audience for the movies here in the UK were, I suggest, subtly and positively affected by the inclusion of heroes and villains of colour. Even if these actors were not themselves British, they opened doors in the media industries for black and Asian actors who were.

What of Moore himself? Here we cannot tell any story without first acknowledging the centrality of Sean Connery to the Bond mythos. He embodies the phrase that was ironically said (by film critic Raymond Mortimer) in connection with the first Eon Productions Bond movie without Connery: "James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets." This is of course a problematic claim unless it is preceded with the phrase “in the imagination of men...” Which men? Why, 1960s stereotype men of course who, on the basis of Connery’s Bond, fantasise about striking women across the face so that they will then want to have sex with them - something Connery’s Bond does with embarrassing frequency.

But not so Roger Moore’s Bond. Whilst still sexist by contemporary standards, his version of the iconic character is markedly more respectful of women in that his technique for attracting women isn't to physically abuse them. Clearly, Bond is still at heart an adolescent power fantasy - but what action hero is not? More than that, Moore’s Bond isn’t just a fantasy for teenage boys, he is emotionally a teenage boy - with his distinguishing feature being that unlike any actual teenager he is written with the skills, gadgets, and sheer luck to actually succeed at everything instead of merely falsely believing that they would do so. Moore’s Bond is an absurdly dangerous teenage boy in a man’s body, who is always inches away from death by misadventure but is repeatedly saved by script immunity or, more often as not, by the magical science provided by Q’s gadgets.

Moore’s casting was not any kind of accident. His quasi-predecessor, George Lazenby, had the fatal flaw of not being Sean Connery, while Moore had the immense benefit of not being George Lazenby. Moore was chosen precisely because he had already shown himself more than capable of playing a gentleman spy, having done so as Leslie Charteris' 1920s hero Simon Templar in the TV show of The Saint, which aired from 1962 to 1969. Templar is a thief not a secret agent as such, but he is still very much part of the spy thriller genre broadly construed. And like Moore’s Templar, Moore’s Bond is impossibly skilled, implausibly righteous (yet never quite good, per se), and bucks authority with a glint in his eye, an impish grin, and more than a few raised eyebrows. Transplanting Moore into the Albert R. Brocolli film series was a safety play - and boy, did it work! The movie series’ success grew substantially during Moore’s tenure - he even got to ‘win’ against Connery in the much publicized ‘Bond vs Bond’ box office duel of 1983, when Octopussy outgrossed Never Say Never Again.

What I love most about Moore’s dangerous teenager is that quite unlike the brutal, emotionally stunted Bond of Daniel Craig, or the woman-beating Bond of Connery, Moore’s Bond is always respectful to those serving in the military (but never entirely to the civil command, which Bernard Lee's and Judi Dench's M represent) and largely avoids being a murderer - except for two instances, which apparently Moore himself was vehemently opposed to. Yes, enemies are killed, but largely in self-defence. Moore’s Bond is a warrior with honour, something quite unthinkable in contemporary cinema without transplanting the story back in time more than a hundred years. In the twenty first century, our spies and military are now permitted to murder even our own citizens with unquestioned yet utterly questionable impunity. But Moore’s Bond has an ethic to his spycraft that is as unrealistic as the magical science of his gadgets, but that makes him far easier to love because we somehow want to believe that spies could be this noble, even though we know they are not.

As I said at the outset, it’s not my intent to convert you to Moore, but rather to show how Moore’s Bond is tied up with British culture in a way that Connery’s Bond really isn’t (although some of his filthiest puns - penned by children's author Roald Dahl for Your Only Live Twice - require a grounding in British schoolboy humour to appreciate). Connery (Scottish) and Brosnan (Irish) are the most Americanized Bonds - and very enjoyable for it! But Moore is quintessentially English, his Britishness rooted in Oxbridge, the Officers’ Training Corps, and London gentlemen’s clubs (by which I do not mean strip clubs!). As problematic as this may be in retrospect - the false equation of Britishness with Englishness being a papering over of the aforementioned whiteness problem - it has an inherent charm that is also part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes, another quintessentially English hero with magical science at his disposal.

I love Moore’s Bond, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of why in this short missive - why, I haven't even mentioned how they let the always astonishing Grace Jones design her own wardrobe in 1985's A View to a Kill, which must surely be the greatest costumes ever seen in a franchise known for its outlandish clothing. There's so much to adore in these films once you let them beguile you, but I think appreciating Moore as Bond requires either an openness to archaic Englishness as an aspect of Britishness (which is also helpful for appreciating classic Doctor Who), or an ability to enjoy an action movie purely as a pulp romp and not as cinema, per se. The Moore Bond movies may indeed be bad films, but they are among the greatest bad films ever made. It has been a pleasure sharing them with my three young boys, and I hope in writing this letter that I can give you at least a glimpse of why that might be so.

Please continue to be the good and excellent person you are, and to write about films, games, and whatever else you choose to discuss. If you should find the time to reply, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, or indeed on the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, which I personally view in quite similar ways, as allowing a vast raft of phenomenal black musical talent a cinematic spotlight they could never have had at that time without teaming up with white comedians. 

With love and respect,

Chris.

Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!


Player Motives, Player Practices

A blog-letter to Paul Gestwicki as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

10PlayerMotivesDear Paul,

Thank you for your blog-letter, Teaching Game Design with Player Practices. This is an interesting question, and one that I have had cause to ponder for quite a while since you first mentioned this to me. What makes it especially difficult to answer is the provision that this would be an introduction, rather than say, an entire course incorporating player practices into its framework. But it seems to me that if the player practices approach is viable at all, it would also be viable to teach as part of an introduction. So how might we do it?

Before I discuss a possible answer, I want to state my support for introducing game design to people using boardgames (analogue games, as game studies has branded them, according to its ongoing obsession with the digital). I can create a boardgame in three hours, albeit with years of prior experience to draw upon, and although the systems-thinking that goes into such designs is not applicable to all kinds of videogames, it cannot be avoided that teaching an introduction to game design with a digital tool would end up up with most of the time spent on debugging etc. and not enough iteration. The sheer pace of boardgame development makes it an ideal teaching tool.

But the benefit of thinking in terms of player practices is that it transforms the context of what is going on, and thus avoids a number of conceptual blocks that have beset game studies and game development for decades. The first of these is a personal bugbear of mine: assuming that 'the player' is merely a surrogate for 'me'. Too many otherwise-talented indie developers spread this pernicious propaganda: just make a game for yourself and then the players will find you! This is either a lie, or a gross error. It only works if you happen to possess play styles and tastes that align with a significant proportion of the audience and manage to get traction among the games press. Since the successful indies have already passed both hurdles, they erroneously assume that their strategy will work for everyone. It doesn't. But the 'file drawer' problem means that the hundreds of failures are invisible and thus ignored, creating an illusion where 'the player is me' is good professional game design practice, rather than a vast risk factor in commercial failure. Of course, when you make a pet project, you're absolutely entitled to make whatever you want! But the games industry today includes a rather desolate wasteland of failed game projects that were made 'for themselves'... browse the hinterlands of Steam and anyone will see exactly what I mean.

To think about game design in terms of player practices is to break out of the assumption that 'the player is me' and replace it with the idea that 'I am a player, there are other players' and (relatedly) 'the same game can be played in many different ways'. Yet how challenging this transition can be for us nerdy folks who thrive on systems thinking and prefer to ignore the complexity of actual human behaviour! A subtle part of the problem is that most of us have picked up a rather misleading view of the sciences that has been distorted by the fact that physics was a comparatively simple research field, while (say) medicine is an extremely complex one. We tend to elevate physics to the top of the science totem pole because it happened to be an area where mathematics could do a great deal of the heavy lifting... Einstein's work, for instance, was never experimental, but always 'merely' a matter of manipulating the algebra. The point being: those of us drawn to game design have learned to think about knowledge in a way conditioned by the formula-driven field of physics, which was 'easier' precisely because it's about 'things'. As you say, Computer Science students tend to be focused on 'things'. But games are not things. Games are what we play with things. So to get really good at designing games is to get really good at thinking about people, which is almost always much 'harder' than understanding things.

It follows that if the problem is to get folks more familiar with things-and-their-systems to think about people-and-their-practices, we need a system to scaffold the transition. In this regard, any player model will suffice as long as it captures some aspects of the diversity of play - so anything from Bartle’s types for MMOs to Lazzaro’s Four Fun Keys will do the job. My personal preference, unsurprisingly, is my own most recent model - 10 player motives - which was summarised in The Aesthetic Motives of Play, and is pictured above. A great introductory exercise is to have a test (sych as our legacy model BrainHex) that ‘types’ (i.e. badly approximates) students' play styles, and then allows the class to have a discussion about different elements of the play experience. This not only reinforces the remarkable differences in play styles and motivations for play, it helps students to see that everyone expresses multiple different motives and approaches in connection with the games they play. Once a system for appreciating player diversity is ‘installed’, the way is cleared to understand games from the perspective of their practices.

You then have a wide variety of options for how to proceed. I personally like to come at player practices from a historical perspective, via key moments such as the practice of using arrow keys for movement, as established by Dungeon Keeper and preserved in early id games like SHOUTY ALL CAPS DOOM, and the transition to ASWD as a result of Quake’s mouselook options and then Half-Life establishing it as the standard controls for FPS. I can fill twelve hours of lectures with this sort of stuff, but most students only connect to the material when it entails games they have actually played. That being so, a viable alternative is to pick a major AAA game franchise most students will know and identify the different ways the same game can be played differently. It is not even necessary for everyone to have played the franchise (or whatever you end up picking) to do this - those that have not can be given the role of 'researcher' to catalogue all the ways of playing they can find by interviewing those that have played. It may even be gainful to break up one of these games into its designed systems (which would help clear the way for a later boardgame exercise) and consider which of the different play styles connect with which of the component systems.

Pokémon is ideal for such an exercise. Those players for whom Pokémon is primarily a competitive battling game are executing wildly different player practices from those who are trying to fill up the Pokedex like a stamp collection (or, more accurately given the player practices that led to it, the toys from a gacha capsule machine). A good resource for examining the differences in played experiences here would be to look at the individual Pokémon guides maintained by a community like Smogon that has developed its own style of play using the exact same resources that Game Freak put into these games (supplemented in this case with their own tool for playing out those battles externally to an 'official' Nintendo game context). If we expand our view to the level of the media franchise (not just the flagship AAA games) we can also consider the role of the cartoon, the trading card game, and indeed Pokémon GO, in sustaining a set of absolutely central imaginative practices (the contents of the Pokedex in toto) that every instance participates with versus those practices (going to specific locations in the real world, breeding, trading monsters both online or face-to-face etc.) that are specific to each instance.

Many other such examples could be constructed - but note that we do not, alas, have the option here of looking at obscure and interesting titles. It is the big titles that sustain the key player practices, while the small titles are largely parasitic upon these practices by 'borrowing' them - and indeed subverting them for more interesting purposes (The Stanley Parable, for instance, relies upon AAA game narrative practices for the entirety of its player experience). In order that such an education in player practices does not merely suck up to the media corporations, it would be extremely helpful to follow the above exercise with another that looks at the diaspora of player practices that expand outwards from the big, anchoring franchises. Personally, I would do this historically by using (say) Counter-Strike as an example of corporate-sustained practices (FPS controls) nucleating new player experiences in the hands of creative individuals. Of course, in this case (as in many others) the small team responsible for the subverting title is invited into the media conglomerate, so alternative cases like Dear Esther, which more than anything else subverted FPS control practices in the most unexpected fashion by removing the guns, are also worth discussing.

Ultimately, you need some practical exercises in game design, and this is where the boardgames might come in. It could be interesting to link the examination of player practices in the preceding exercises to a practical spell with cards, dice, and pawns - for instance, by challenging the neophyte game designers to choose a player practice in a digital game and find a way to spin it into a viable tabletop game. The Pokedex, naturally, is a fine resource for system-building in other styles, and the turn-based combat of Pokémon can be easily returned to the table because its battle practices descend directly from Dragon Quest, which acquired them originally from Dungeons & Dragons, and before that, from Avalon Hill games. There are videogames without a player practice lineage tracking back to the table... but the vast majority of titles today do, in spite of the fact that those practices descended directly from the arcade largely do not. 

The same point can be explored ahistorically, or by focusing solely on recent history (and hence, upon those games that the students will know) but I would personally go to great lengths to stress how far back these practices flow, that videogames did not come into existence ex nihilo, but develop as a continuation of practices coming from carnivals, gambling, storytelling, divination, and more besides. When I lecture Masters students on this topic, I take it back to 4,000 BC, and at my keynote for the Brazilian games industry I took it back to 540 million years ago just for the fun of it! You would undoubtedly have your own sense of how best to address this topic in order to keep your audience engaged - despite the contemporary obsession with so-called 'quality' in teaching, the vast majority of successful teaching practices entail forms of intellectual entertainment, since an engaged student is the only one who is actually going to retain anything being taught.

This is only a sketch, but I think this a plausible way of incorporating player practices into an introductory class on game design.

I offer my grateful thanks for your writing to me about this, not only because it is an excuse for me to talk about my own academic work (and I do not actually get as many of these as I should like), but also because it is an honour to have my work in player practices taken seriously. I went down a rabbit hole with this, discovered Wonderland, and of course have had to come back and write about it. But I am acutely aware that game studies holds me somewhat at arms length when it comes to my use of non-analytic philosophy to understand games and play. Perhaps when I am gone there will be some effort made to proverbially pat me on the back for my work, but of course, by then it will be too late then for me to appreciate it!

Also, I asked people to write to me and you actually did so. That means far more to me than I can say.

Hoping that every student you teach will both listen and hear you,

Chris.

Further replies and comments always welcome.


Write To Me

May contain ideas some people might find offensive or distressing.

Quill and parchmentAs I head into my annual Autumnal Social Media Break, I've already resolved to once again use December for blog letters as I did back in 2017. The last two years I was so heavily into the A Hundred Cyborgs project I didn't manage it - but it's a great way to spend the run up to the Winter Festivals. I will gladly reply to anyone, on any topic they choose to discuss with me, without reservation or restriction. Some subjects are harder than others to talk about - some, as this year has shown, can be rendered impossible to talk about. So it is vital that there are a few souls who are willing and able to talk freely on even the difficult subjects. But you don't have to write to me about something weighty and ponderous - I will quite happily talk to you all about anything.

I'm kicking off this year's Social Media Break two weeks early... this is largely because my attempts to patiently unravel a difficult research topic have been met with a near constant stream of derision and abuse on Twitter, bringing on my worst bout of insomnia for several years. I'm not blaming anyone - I should know better than to think philosophy of science would be welcome in a time of international panic, and especially in the grotesque arena of knee-jerk hatred that is Twitter! Still, I can only be myself, and I've never been good at staying quiet when I see people being hurt by the petty evils of bureaucracy, nor when good scientific practices are being ignored or, worse, suppressed.

After about 120 hours of reading papers and listening to those in the relevant medical discourses, I appear to have all the answers that are going to be possible at this time. I set out with the suggestion that if we were going to deploy medical interventions with potential risks, we were obligated to do the research to verify that these measures actually help as expected and do not also cause unanticipated harms. In return, I have been told the most astonishing and bizarre things - that we should do the research later, that there is no need for further research, that "science has spoken!" and how dare I oppose it, or just that I should stop complaining. It is strange indeed to demand "the stakes are so high, we must not investigate further!"

No-one can claim to be a friend of the sciences while they tacitly suppress the disagreements that all research fields depend upon to refine their understandings. No matter how preposterous the arguments you've heard on these issues might be, it won't change the fact that I'm not arguing those things. My story in this regard is quite simple. I witnessed the discourse in the medical community in the UK collapse at a time when good scientific practice was needed more than ever. I have vainly tried to repair that rift by studying the disputed topics and continuing to ask that we conduct the further research required. I have become horrified that the necessary research is not happening, and even more so when good people try to argue in all sincerity "where's your evidence more evidence is required...?"

Here in the UK, the argument for the measures deployed in this country was made on weak evidence by the very admission of those who asked for it. To not then conduct further research to verify the impact of these unprecedented courses of action would be criminally negligent. In the medical sciences, we expect strong evidence (e,g. randomised trials) for all medical interventions, so when we don't have that evidence we are obligated to pursue it. This is a view many clear-sighted medical folks in the UK share with me, and it is summarised with great clarity by Dr Margaret McCartney in her piece for the BMJ, We Need Better Evidence About Non-Drug Interventions against COVID-19. People in the UK - almost all of them poor and many now at the brink of destitution - are being fined for their non-compliance with medical interventions that the government has refused to check to see if they are working as hoped. That is a civil rights failure as well as a scientific failure.

I apologise without reservation for any distress I have inadvertently caused in my pursuit of this issue. I never write with the intent of hurting other people, and mental health issues are extremely important to me. But you cannot ask me to be complicit in unreasonable, unethical, unscientific inaction because you are either too furious or too terrified to think clearly. I'm asking for further research on matters where lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. How can you in good conscience oppose this request? There is no point trying to shout me down, demanding that I stop, because I cannot possibly put this aside until the circumstances that allowed scientific practices to become politicised, circumvented, and even censored have been addressed. And I rather doubt this will happen in my lifetime.

Speaking of my lifetime... I'm getting rather long in the tooth. I'm turning 49 on January 1st, and my lifestyle choices in my 20s have probably taken a decade or two off my life expectancy. I'm not afraid of my own death (it's one of the reasons I had to make a pact with myself never to commit suicide, no matter how depressed I might become), but there are things I would like to do in my remaining years. In particular, I should like to give talks in some of the places that I have friends but that I have either never visited (like New York state), have so far visited solely for business (like Poland), or have already said I'd be glad to visit when I can (like Rio). I know most of you view in-person events as unthinkable right now... but by Spring 2021, I have hope that we'll be starting to look at everything quite differently for various reasons not worth elucidating here. So if you have the courage or recklessness or chutzpah to begin planning a currently hypothetical in-person speaking event, anywhere in the world, with me as a part of it - please do get in touch! There's a contact link at ihobo.com if you don't already have my email address.

In the meantime, please try to be good to one another. Whatever the outcome of the US election, our situation will not improve without the efforts of everyone to move beyond the disastrous political impasse we reached in the last decade, but which has been building for far, far longer. Listen to pre-Disney Master Yoda's advice about fear, anger, and hatred; it's very wise, and just as relevant now as it was forty years ago. And if you're capable of writing a letter, and willing to share letters publicly - then please write a blog-letter to me! I am looking for correspondents from the Republic of Bloggers (i.e. anyone) whom I can write to this December, and as always I will talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Virtuous discourse matters and I need your help to encourage it.

With unlimited love,

Dr Chris Bateman
PhD, MSc, BSc, OΦM.

Only a Game will resume in December.


A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (2): Everybody's Gone To The Rapture

YaughtonDear Jed,
In the first part of this blog-letter, I discussed the rise of the walking simulator and the merits and flaws of perhaps the most expensive game of this kind yet made, Firewatch. In this concluding part, it is time to look at what The Chinese Room achieved – and failed to achieve – in their successor to Dear Esther, the science fiction drama Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which you critiqued in August 2015.

I must start by confessing my neutrality to its art style. I am not wowed by so-called photo-realism, which rarely seems impressive to me and I would much rather the beautiful stylised visuals of Firewatch than ‘reality’, which is to say, the jarring unreality of the attempt to look actual. One of the biggest problems with this choice of visuals is that by setting the bar so high, every tiny flaw becomes much more apparent – witness your complaints about the ‘phoniness’ of the pub (it is not a bar, as you claim) and the jarring repetition of props like the paintings. The result is that a trip to the Vale of Yaughton is a literal descent into the Uncanny Valley.

But you misjudge the situation when you attribute this and other such flaws as resulting from The Chinese Room’s disrespect of their audience – almost all of your complaints about repeated content, or the missing character models, or even the game’s issues with ‘sprinting’ (well, walking imperceptibly faster) are attributable to a problem I know all too well from personal experience: developmental constraints. For although it may not be apparent, this game had far a lower budget – and a tighter development schedule – than Firewatch. Where you offer your disdain, I offer my sympathy. You will say, as you have done before, that the critic need not take into account behind-the-scenes issues such as these, and I will continue to disagree. It would be wrong to complain that a stage play was lacking in CGI – not just because it’s not part of the form, but because stage plays are budgeted differently to films. The constraints of form are part of the wider world of artworks. Treating ‘videogames’ as one singular form is a hopeless approach; surely your support of Beeswing entails at the very least an acknowledgement of its low budget? Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture certainly has more resources than that particular artgame, but it is pinched in the uncomfortable space below AAA where players expect everything a big budget offers but which the developer cannot possibly hope deliver. I work primarily in this commercial space – and I love it, too, since the room for creativity on AAA’s is almost negligible – and I am far more appreciative than you of the ways The Chinese Room conserve their budget (for instance, by not animating full characters).

But then, there’s that six hours of gameplay issue. I agree with you here – the game is too long, and this means the resources are stretched even thinner, although given the design choices that were made a lot of the extra space is less expensive than it could have been, I suppose. I am also surprised you do not mention the ‘tuning’ mechanic, where you must tilt the controller to trigger certain key flashbacks. These for me were far and away the biggest aesthetic flaw in the game and I suspect the hand of Sony’s ex-dev department in this, since they are always trying to force motion controls onto devs (it was a requirement of the unprecedented three-game deal Sony struck with thatgamecompany that all three had to feature motion controls). The trouble for me here was that the tutorial clearly shows the controller titled ninety degrees. So that’s what I did every time. But that was the wrong instruction, as I finally discovered only at the very last juncture. It is required to be an analogue action, akin to radio tuning. Without this knowledge I had to seek the one hidden spot where the flashbacks could be triggered at ninety degrees – in one case requiring me to balance precariously upon a bench to trigger one of several poignant scenes that apparently had no impact upon you whatsoever. (From looking into it, I was not the only player to fall prey of this frustration. The root problem? Not enough blind testing. The QA team knew how it worked, so they could never spot there was an issue. The game needed testing by players with no preconceptions, and this does not appear to have been done in this case.)

So to the story. You hate it. I, on the other hand, think Dan’s script is a work of insane brilliance, for despite my expectation that this was to be a game inspired by that most English of sci-fi authors John Wyndham (clearly an influence, mind you...) what this game is truly modelled upon in the longest running soap opera in the world: BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Now various British reviewers have mentioned this in passing, sometimes as an accusation (I guess because they never liked the show?), but none seem to have really grasped just how great a tribute to the form of that radio soap this script truly is. And given that nobody in their right mind would bankroll a videogame whose x-statement was ‘the Archers meets the apocalypse’, I afford huge credit to Dan for going down this road, and for doing it so well.

There are missteps – the fox anecdote you mention is somewhat overwrought, although I think it still just about lands, and the radio overhear of the air strike in the caravan comes off a little too Planet of the Apes finale – but there are a great many places where it rings true too. Lizzie’s pregnancy is subtly foreshadowed by having her ‘ghost ball’ accompanied by a smaller companion, and here as elsewhere Stephen comes off badly because he is written as a heel. Stephen thinks he is the hero... but he is so lacking in virtue that he brings disaster at every step, a tragic hero of a kind The Archers seldom engages with. And there are moments of great success – the evocation of Kate’s perceived sense of exclusion (because the rural Shropshire community has so little experience of black people she takes their discomfort at her arrival as racism, which it arguably both is and is not) is one of the stronger emotional notes of the story, and makes sense of her character as the architect of everyone’s doom, aided – willingly and unwillingly – by her hopelessly inadequate husband, Stephen, who pushes her into an intellectual affair with the alien visitor.

I think it a great shame that you did not find the same appreciation of these elements of the story as I did. Partly, perhaps, the grounding in the form of The Archers might be necessary for context, but I suspect the larger problem is one you flag but also perhaps misunderstand: the word ‘Rapture’ writes a cheque the game then seems unwilling or unable to cash. You want a spiritual or theological theme to be touched upon, and the developers have no interest in this. In this regard, we come upon this game from opposite directions since I am British and you are from the States. Frankly, I am worn down by decades of British sci-go being prejudiced against Christians (see my 2009 serial Religion in Science Fiction, for detailed discussion) such that your dismissive thankfulness that “a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity” lands even more positively in my experiences of the game. I come to every British a sci-fi artwork these days expecting it to excoriate yet another shallow stereotyped portrayal of people from faith traditions. So when I come across a clergy character like Jeremy, who actually has some nuance in his relationships with his parishioners – especially, as you note, with the dogmatic busybody Wendy – it’s more than just a breath of fresh air, it’s a blessed relief.

Let me state this bluntly: no British videogame is ever going to tackle any kind of theological issue, because the only kind of theology practiced in our game developers is the kind of prejudicial atheology premised on childishly simplistic views on God or gods. Yet in the case of The Chinese Room, they treat their ‘Father’ well. Mind you, it’s quite clear that neither Dan nor Jessica are actively part of any Christian tradition, but I’d hazard a guess that at least one of them (I failed to catch up with them last time I was in Brighton to find out whom!) is presumably a ‘lapsed’ Catholic, or otherwise has some familial link to Roman Catholicism. You see, the Church of England (which, given the nature of British parishes, must be the denomination Jeremy belongs to) do not call their vicars ‘Father’, at least not officially.  This is a term used primarily by Roman Catholics, and these churches are never not accompanied by a C of E church in the UK. Yet there is only one church in Yaughton, which cannot therefore by a Catholic church. More tellingly, the concept of ‘the Rapture’ is never touched upon in Church of England sermons as it is wholly a Roman Catholic concept. These are the kind of small details that make it clear that, as ever, the developers are ‘outside looking in’. But at least they are looking in kindly for once.

I write this not to persuade you to change your view but to offer a different way of looking at this game. You complain about the absence of discussion regarding “spiritual and religious themes” in the reviews for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – but then you too neglect to engage in this capacity, instead decrying the ‘secular’ (in this case, I might say ‘positivist’) position of the game’s creators. But since when have you been bound by authorial intent in your reading of a game? Irrespective of Dan and Jessica’s metaphysical positions, the game is still inviting a theological interpretation that is available but offered by no critic so far, including you. For the unanswered question remains: who is the player that is bearing witness to this calamity...? Not one of the ‘victims’ of the Pattern, certainly, for whomever we might be playing, we are still embodied. And the sci-fi intentions of The Chinese Room can’t resolve this question without conceptual gymnastics, whereas a theologian has many choices in interpreting the game. Yaughton might be seen in terms of the Catholic concept of Purgatory (its residents are certainly not at peace, nor yet in any kind of hell, except perhaps for Stephen); the player could be seen as some kind of divine observer, in keeping with a concept of God as an ephemeral being that empathises with human suffering but cannot get involved without betrayal of its own values; or the player may yet be a sign that this catastrophe is not final after all, but that some salvation may yet be possible. It simply doesn’t matter that the game’s creator’s don’t intend any such theological interpretation – it is there to be found by those who seek it, and indeed, it is crying out for such a reading precisely because, as you point out, the title invites it.

Ultimately, my experience of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was caught between two stumps. It was not the sure-footed follow up to Dear Esther I was hoping for, but neither is it the soulless train wreck you accuse it of being. It is, I dare say, a bold experiment in game narrative that cannot quite deliver on all fronts because it has taken on too much and lacked the resources to succeed with its focus thus divided. But I would so much rather play a deeply flawed attempt to transcend the typical like this than another meaningless exercise in corporate monetisation. I’m quite sure the same is true with you, whatever your specific disappointments with this game.

Critics are sometimes rebutted by the ludicrous claim that they have produced nothing and therefore have no right to comment upon the work of those that have. Yet the critic produces something of deep value: a measured response to artworks that opens possible new perspectives on those pieces to others. Your work is at its best for me when you can see in a game what others have overlooked, which is why I always share your positive reviews, and I seldom share anyone’s negative ones. You perhaps cannot change the way you feel about the games you have already played, and even in your most venomous take-downs I find authentic evidence of the work of a critic or, rather, the evidence of the work of an authentic critic. I’m sad that you might be engaging less with games in the future, but I suppose not surprised. We share a general disappointment with the artistic state of the media we call videogames. But how much harder it must be for you when even the interesting titles, like the two walking simulators these letters discuss, leave you unsatisfied! If I am more forgiving of these games than you, it is only perhaps because I am hungrier for even the attempt to break through the stultifying norms of the games industry, and too acutely aware of the terrible limitations that make game development far harder than any player outside it can appreciate.

With unlimited love and respect,

Chris.

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.


A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch

FirewatchDear Jed,
Ever since 2012, I’ve been an instant convert to the ‘walking simulator’, a reclaimed derogatory term (much like ‘queer’) that ill-advisedly reinforces two notions that we would be better off without: firstly, that ‘simulation‘ is the best descriptor for the aesthetic qualities of videogame fiction, and secondly that violent videogames are ‘murder simulators’. We should resist any temptation to go down this line of thinking, but nonetheless ‘walking simulator’ is the term that has stuck, and it is a perfectly serviceable descriptor.

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

But... what happens next? It is a matter of some importance to me whether we are talking about a few momentary blips in the otherwise predictable flight plan for videogames, or the start of a movement, style, or genre that would stake a claim for the new, or else regress into familiar territory. Gone Home, despite its popularity, had disappointed me both by resorting to puzzle-solving (and thus defaulting back to well-worn adventure game territory) and by being more interested in its bait-and-switch twist than in its characters, relying on political posturing rather than following the story where it led.

Such is the prologue to this two-part letter I have wanted to write to you for quite a while. August 2015 saw the release of The Chinese Room’s follow up to Dear Esther, which I will discuss in the second half of this missive. For now, let us fast forward six months to February 2016, and the release of Firewatch, the most hyped walking simulator to date, soaring on the back of the popularity of Telltale’s The Walking Dead by virtue of inheriting part of that company’s writing team. You pretty comprehensively slated Firewatch in your review in October 2016, so you could be forgiven for assuming I wish to defend it – and I suppose in part that I do – but not, on this occasion, because I disagree with anything you say. Rather, I feel there is merit to the game beyond its rather shocking array of flaws.

The biggest surprise for me in Firewatch is that it was made by people with a background in game development, since playing it I would have sworn that at least one Hollywood screenwriter was involved in the writing process. From top to bottom, almost every design decision seems to flow from that shallow perception of the merit of games shared by most screenwriters, namely an array of choices presented to the player, none of which express any tangible agency at all. The player’s greatest option for self-expression is which cap to wear next – and since these are encountered one at a time, the answer is of course ‘all of them, as you find them’. It is very much that kind of game: the team know everything the player is going to do in advance, except which photos will be taken on the disposable camera, which of course has no effect upon anything. Even deciding where to watch the sunset in a GTA game feels more involved.

Alas, I cannot disagree with your assessment of the story overall, which seems to attempt the same sort of bait-and-switch as Gone Home, except in Firewatch the illusion of an absurdly implausible conspiracy is revealed to be an even more ludicrous situation that strains credibility far more than the game story can hope to bear. Despite this, the dialogue (as you admit) is actually rather good, and the voice talent delivers it well, even if the ‘choices’ offered are largely meaningless throughout. Add to this an attempt at a genuinely mature theme, namely the horrifying situation facing someone whose spouse develops early-onset dementia, and I would defend Firewatch in spite of its abundant weaknesses as a genuine attempt to escape the infantile storytelling standards of videogames where ‘mature’ is typically a phrase used to warn about the kind of humour that amuses teenage boys. That it falls below the standards we would expect in literature, theatre, or film ought to be weighed against the very possibility that such a comparison could be entertained, however fallaciously. Hitchcock it certainly isn’t. But at least it aspires to be more than a recycled action movie.

The most disappointing aspect of Firewatch is also something remarked upon in your critique: that it purports to offer you hiking in the wilderness, yet our character is entirely incapable of doing more than walking along pre-prescribed pathways. I found myself endlessly galled at the thought that someone who has chosen a life outdoors would be unwilling, much less unable, to scale rock faces even my youngest son would find unchallenging. No, out of some mistaken commitment to a concept of immersion rooted solely in animation fidelity, the game constantly uproots its plausibility by making the player climb the same rock objects again and again rather than let them for one moment experience the wilderness as something wild. And yet my experience of national parks in the US has often been of this kind of ‘packaged nature’: pre-prescribed paths in a ring-fenced theme park for nature. Hiking on trails outside such spaces offers a wildly different and far more rewarding experience, but in selling us the shrink-wrapped version of the natural world, Firewatch is only echoing the conceit that lies behind a great many such places in the United States, entailing the same kind of lie about humanity’s relationship with the world around it. It is unfortunate that the game does so in earnest, and thus can make no deeper point about the artificiality of these stage-managed encounters with the wild.

Yet despite this glaring and saddening failure to offer any freedom to the player, or any authentic experience of hiking, there is something astonishing about Firewatch that does not even warrant a mention in your discussion: this world is beautiful. Lighting and colour is used throughout to create breathtaking vistas that almost make the player forget (or perhaps, fail to notice) the unnecessary constraints imprisoning all movement to the official pathways. If we let ourselves exist in these manicured spaces solely through our eyes and ears, if we ignore all the pretensions of the story, if we set aside our gall at two female ‘characters’ whose primary purpose appears to be to titillate male players with their overemphasised yet unseen nudity, if we just enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest presented to us, Firewatch is triumphantly beautiful. To not mention this – or perhaps, to fail to suspend critical judgement long enough to allow yourself to enjoy this – is something akin to a critical failure. Thus while you avoid the traps of other reviewers in your insightful and accurate criticism of the game’s failings, I think perhaps that you also fail to appreciate why the walking simulator can be so powerful an aesthetic experience. I do not doubt you have an explanation, a reason this aspect of the game does not work for you – yet I fear at heart it is simply that you have not allowed yourself to engage with this game in a way that would make this appreciation possible. You are so perceptive about the myriad failures of artistry in the media we call videogames, I wonder sometimes if your critical insight is also blocking you from appreciating some of our greatest successes too.

It is a theme I also wish to pursue in the second half of this letter.

Next week: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.


Chris Billows on Nostalgia

Chris Billows (AKA Doc Surge) has replied to the earlier A Hundred Cyborgs piece on Vintage Collectibles with his own reflections on nostalgia. Here’s an extract:

Nostalgia is a chemical mixture that blends complimentary and contradictory ingredients. For it to work, it needs to be readily accessible or relatable, provide a sense of comfort, and provide a contradictory sense of fantasy. One cannot entertain adventure unless emotionally ready for it and it is readily available.

You can read the entirety of Nostalgia: The Chemicals Between Us over at From the Journals of Doc Surge.


Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke responding to their talk at Develop: Brighton. Here’s the most inflammatory paragraph to whet your appetite:

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

You can read the entirety of Beyond Choice in Game Narrative over at ihobo.com.


The Journey Towards Trans Liberty

An open letter replying to Branwen at Branwen.me as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Obaid.Traces of LibertyDear Branwen,

I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.

A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.

A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.

As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.

The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.

In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.

It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.  

You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.

I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.

When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.

We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).

I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.

I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.

The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:

…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?

It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.

This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.

You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at omarobaid.com. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.