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Just a quick blarg to note something I observed: on the same day as I saw calls for more academics to engage with the public, to demonstrate their “relevance” and safeguard their research funding in the face of Tone Abet’s razor-gang set to slash “waste” in ARC grants… I also saw a “really great” blog post on why blogging and specifically the injunctive to “blog your research” is a trap by which capitalism captures our thinking, rhythms, affective labour, etc. etc. in line with Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism. Blogging as “expressing your individuality and worth,” the author suggested, was a Berlantian Cruel Optimism, actually impeding our achieving a better future.
To the former I wanted to say, “Miyamoto never had to work for press like this” and I very nearly left an angry comment before thinking better of it (close call). And to the latter, I guess I wasn’t sure what to say because I skim read it and then went and did something else instead on the net. Hey look its the internet, go play.
Darshana is getting rock hard abs instead of getting into fights.
So there’s a new game out called Gone Home and I don’t have the superlatives to describe it adequately so just take my word for it and go play. It’s some trifling amount of money on steam. If you haven’t finished playing it, I advise you to stop reading this essay now and just spend the two or three hours it takes to finish because it is about one of a half-dozen games that actually can be spoiled by reading too much about it.
With that out of the way, I want to talk about one particular moment – the one, single, solitary ‘jump scare’ in this whole spooky house game. It’s the when the lightbulb pops on the staircase down in the first ‘secret passage’. I jumped so hard that I literally threw away the little crucifix I had just picked up to inspect. I probably even made some kind of noise as I spun around looking for some ghost or monster inevitably bearing down upon me to eat my soul or something. God punishing me.
So that moment, and really it’s true for the rest of the game, is a really nice example of ludonarrative harmony – an example of when I am experiencing exactly what the games mechanics (popping lightbulb) and the story (scared 20 year old in the ‘psycho house’ at midnight alone) am supposed to be feeling. It’s just really nice and I think it begins to answer some of Robert Yang’s question that he posed earlier this week, which was ‘Why should we care about ludonarrative dissonance since most players don’t seem to either?’
Yang takes, I think, slightly the wrong lesson from mainstream ‘core gamer’ audience’s failure to care about any major ludonarrative dissonance in a game (his example is Bioshock Infinite but take your pick). His point is that the “dissonance” component of ludonarrative dissonance isn’t really all that dissonant at all, which is sort-of true because heaps of people barely even register it. But my contention is that it never was an obvious form of dissonance, since even the prototypical Bioshock little sister example of ludonarrative dissonance went unnoticed until you did the kind of analysis that Hocking undertook. The concept never specified an overt dissonance to begin with. We put up with (even enjoy!) all kinds of learned dissonances everyday – just listen to jazz.
But getting back to the game, I raved about Gone Home on Facebook last night to a friend of mine James Dalmau – who is not a ‘core’ gamer, just a smart guy with a masters in law who like most people also plays games – and we chatted this morning about his experience, which differed considerably from mine. James told me via FB chat that,
…to be honest I never really thought it was spooky ghosts
I thought that was just silly kid stuff put in as a red herring
But every ‘core gamer’ journalist/critic friend of mine seemed to expecte horror. We’ve all played Amnesia: The Dark Descent (or watched hilarious Let’s Play reactions). Brendan Keogh even wrote on his blog about this point exactly:
I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn’t turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn’t. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad’s friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It’s a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it’s going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.
Likewise, Dan Bruno responding to Brendan’s piece in a Facebook comment said that he played the game in the style of a scared teen, rushing for the light switch in every room:
…that is literally exactly how I played. Open door, peek around corner looking for switch, then make a beeline for it before looking at anything in the room
At one point in the game I thought I spotted an actual ghost, but it turns out it was just black jagged veil that indicated the limits of the engine’s render distance, the contents of a hallway on the other side of the house appearing and disappearing as I stepped back and forth. But I was still expecting ghosts.
So what’s going on here? A non-core gamer isn’t scared by the game’s red herrings, but we seasoned veterans expect the worst. I’m going to suggest that what Gone Home does is actually exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes, even the expectation of ludonarrative dissonance to resolve into a weird, and almost ironic, situation of ludonarrative harmony. Because we expect the worst, we get the best possible synchronicity with the player character.
If you expect monsters because you have played horror videogames, your expectations are set up by the history of the medium, by the hundreds of spooky-house games that have come before (no slight on them). But until now there has never, or almost never, been a game this real before. Gone Home is almost shockingly quotidian, in an ordinary rational sense, and it’s the confounding of our gamic (ludic?) expectations (built up through years of expectation of ludonarrative dissonance since ghosts don’t actually exist but okay sure I’ll fight one in a game) which places us, the player, into the subject position of exactly who and where Katie is and what she is feeling.
That is supremely weird, and a triumph of a sort that I haven’t seen anyone comment on yet. Of course, there is so much more to say about this game – and so much great stuff has already been written. Check out Cameron’s piece, and Brendan’s is also great linked above. Leigh Alexander obliquely addresses the game’s setting of the 90s in a piece for Gamasutra. Claire Hoskings has a piece that I’ve read a draft of too which should be coming soon. And this post addresses an element of the relationship between two characters that I totally missed myself.
But I wanted to highlight this strangely harmonious aspect of Gone Home and maybe set up for another post that I have in mind that is a bit more ambitious, aiming to unite the political ideas of ‘accelerationism’ that Mark Fisher applies to the realm of cultural production with the idea of ludonarrative dissonance/harmony. It’s an exciting time.
So this is some bullshit right here.
As much as I know we all want this kind of thing to be good it’s really the complete opposite of that. I’ll give you a few reasons, and there’s more I won’t go into now, but the essence is that this is “better than regular capitalism” – which is just a flat-out ideological smokescreen. Remember the McDonald’s video? Similar thing is happening here – the problems posed by capitalism are provisionally addressed by some kind of appeal to capitalism with a human face, or capitalism with a smile. While in the McDonald’s video it was the gesture to transparency that ends up hiding the hideous manipulation in plain sight, here it’s an “offset” ideology. Offset the worst, while using the same (sales; marketing; etc) techniques as everyone else.
Capitalism is still going to ruin the planet, but since we’re inevitably stuck on this path of utter ruin how about we put some smiles on some faces at the same time? That’s their (unstated) position and argument as to why you should ditch “regular” capitalism and instead “do some good” while expressing your consumer capitalist purchasing power. Do I need to add how problematic it is basing one’s capacity to do good on the excess purchasing power of middle class, aspirational young people? Why do you think there’s no one over 30 in this video – why are they all the exact same people who gravitate towards prestigious NGOs?
I’m tempted to see this as yet another extension of what Graeber acknowledges about the way the middle-class Left monopolises any kinds of altrusitic work outside of the church or the military. The way that it keeps these people out is primarily via wealth – if you can’t afford to intern, you’re shit out of luck – and via culture. Look at the homogenous pricks in this video. Do you think a single one of them has ever had a unique thought in their short lives?
As an example of the monopolisation of this kind of work, my mum was a solicitor for 25yrs, has two masters degrees in development studies and international relations and STILL can’t get work at an NGO or similar because she doesn’t fit the cultural/ideological profile of the kind of person they want to hire in order to uncritically keep doing what they’re doing. It’s the blind leading the blind, honestly.
The other thing that’s worth pointing out is the way that the video is totally rife with bullshit semio-capitalist assumptions about work and labour and activism: “If you’re a little bit creative like me” UGH, NO YOU ARE LITERALLY THE LEAST CREATIVE THINKER OF YOUR WHOLE WRETCHED GENERATION. Is this what activism consists of now? Entreating impressionable, aspirational young people into doing little dances and flooding the Facebook pages of our national supermarket duopoly to pressure them into accepting their demands?
Oh, and you know how Woolies and Coles decide what products they stock on shelves? They charge a large shelf-space fee. Remembering that no one, least of all a corporation like ThankYou Water, can be entirely altruistic under capitalism (or else they’d starve/go out of business/etc) do you really think ThankYou Water is trying to do this only out of the goodness and kindness of their hearts? Market share is fucking lucrative, and whether they intend it or not that is a powerful and politically fraught move. They only get away with it because of the ideology of “doing good”.
But lets say they *are* doing it purely out of the kindness of their sweet-little hearts – what kind of market advantage do you think they’ll get by not having to pay the Woolies/Coles shelfspace fee? That’s going to fuck with other business owners business and their ability to operate?
Are you getting the unspoken message yet: BOOOO look at all those selfish yucky business owners who are doing NOTHING for the world except making money for themselves *tisk tisk tisk*. This is some next level shit.
This kind of thing is so insidious. Just looking over the above, it takes fucking pages and pages of explanation to unpack why all this bullshit is so fucking odious, and even my attempt at an explanation will probably fail to convince most people, who will get so hung up on “doing GOOD” and the POSITIVITY of the message. And at the end of the day everyone working at ThankYou Water will still go home and feel good about what they’re doing, safe in the knowledge that they, and only they, are the TRUE spirit of capitalist generosity.
Edit: Cameron Kunzelman reminds me of this Zizek video which, honestly, is probably the precise place I started to think about these ideas.
On Sat the 16th of June, Lil B the Based God played The Standard in Sydney. He invited some girls onstage to dance with him, one of whom stole his glasses. He pulled up the track, holler’d for security, asked for his team’s protection, then mounted the speakers and delivered the following glorious rant about respecting the artist and fellow audience members. IMO it’s a lesson that Sydney audiences desperately need to hear.
Shout outs to her
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on paranoia, one of the best things I’ve read recently and which I’ll be incorporating into a chapter for sure. If you want to understand much of what goes on, both online and off, and particularly to do with activism, then look to understand paranoia:
The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se including both epistemophilia and scepticism.
The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates, paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known. …the temporal progress and regress of paranoia are, in principle, infinite.
…No time could be too early for one’s having-already-known, for its having-already-been-inevitable, that something bad would happen. And no loss could be too far into the future to need to be preemptively discounted.
Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only by immitation. Paranoia propses both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first – to myself.
It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. …What may be even more important is how severely the memeticism of paranoia circumscribes its potential as a medium of political or cultural struggle.
Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practise, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se – knowledge in the form of exposure. Maybe that’s why paranoid knowing is so inescapably narrative. Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.
From Chapter 4 of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, pp. 130-131, and 138.
A Weekend of Vandalism in New York
The vandalist is recognizable as the most obnoxious brat conjurable in society’s collective imagination. These Bart Simpsons struck once again this past weekend, pranking the Left and their enemies on multiple occasions in a joyous effort to devalorize everything it holds sacrosanct.
They started on Friday night by crashing a party held by the multinational corporation Verso, an enterprise which has made its fortune by cornering the market on socialist-oriented literature. While the paper they sell contains words arguing for revolt against the commodity form, they themselves ruthlessly defend it using lawyers, security guards, Zizekians, and other such police to prevent unauthorized consumption of their product. Such was the case when Verso lawyers sent a cease and desist notice to the beloved AAAARG.org, a website that hosts free PDFs of critical theory, putting Verso in the same category as the MPAA, RIAA, DOJ, and all other litigious enemies of free cultural exchange.
Why haven’t I seen this film already?