Arts Council Project Grant for “Empty Carriage: An Interactive Self-Portrait”

coach pram.jpg
Coach-built pram in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I’ve been awarded an Arts Council Project Grant to turn a vintage coach-built pram into a games console. I’m making a game for it that uses my interactive portraits approach to portray myself. Whereas my other interactive portraits are based on interviews, this one is based instead on a guided inquiry to see through the illusion of self.

Using multiple-choice dialogue options, players will ask the mini-me a series of questions that prompt an examination of every aspect of consciousness, turning over every phenomenological stone to try and find any sign that there is really a “me”. If I can make it work, the interface is probably going to use some interactive textiles, so that the player chooses questions by stroking a blanket. I’m also going to try to build it using a mini-projector, so that the whole thing feels soft and tactile.

I’ll be displaying this at the Platform exhibition at Site Gallery in August, and I’m hoping to take the pram out for a couple of walks this summer as well. This week I’m going on a bit of an adventure to a remote village in North Yorkshire to buy a pram from the 1930s that actually looks a lot like the one from Rosemary’s Baby.

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Video: Curating artist-made games at SF MoMA

This is a short documentary that I made a while ago but never published, about a pop-up exhibition of games that showed at SF MoMA back in 2017 at the same time as GDC. Giving this video a quick editing pass today before uploading it, I was struck by how much of an impact this interview must have had on me. Two years later, I’m still chewing on the ideas brought up here. I’m so glad that I’ve finally made the time to share this material!

This was one of my stops on a train journey down the West Coast of North America, during which I recorded a load of footage for a series of short documentaries about people who curate and archive games. I have a page for the whole series here. In the past few weeks I’ve been uploading them to Vimeo, and with this video uploaded I’ve finally finished the series!

Video: Collecting games at UC Irvine

This is a short documentary that I made a while ago but never published, about a collection of videogames that has come to be used to teach students at UC Irvine.

Back in 2017, I recorded a load of footage for a series of short documentaries about people who curate and archive games. I have a page for the whole series here.

Some stuff got published on sites that briefly had a budget for freelance video, but there were multiple issues that led to the series never finishing. Three of them were hosted by a website that technically isn’t really running anymore, and I don’t know what the future fate of their Youtube channel might be, so I’ve been uploading them to Vimeo.

The one I uploaded today never got published before – with this done, I have one more left to finish before this particular unfinished project is finally tidied away!

What kind of a world will videogames rebuild?

Business Insider has an eye-catching take on the fire of Notre-Dame: “rebuild effort could get help from an unlikely source: a videogame” – basically, they recreated it so accurately in Assassin’s Creed that the research that went into the game could now be used in restoration efforts. So far so postmodern – simulations are informing the construction of reality, heritage is a simulacrum, history is over.

The notion that the Notre-Dame spire could be rebuilt based on a level designer’s work “to make sure that each brick was as it should be” is impressive, and it’s a bit of a testament to the value of artists’ painstaking attempts to document the world. I trained as a design historian, so I care about preserving the history of the built world. But I’m secure enough in that commitment to be a bit contrarian about it. Preserving history isn’t the same as reproducing it. “As it should be” is a different proposition to “what it could be”.

As people talk about what it will take to rebuild, I wonder whether we’re going to hear much critique of the subtle conservatism in conservation, or the hegemonic mythology in heritage. This is a question that comes to mind often when I think about bigger issues such as climate change and neoliberalism. What images are even available for us to think about rebuilding? What is most readily available to us is our shared cultural memory of things as they were, or as described here, “as they should be”.

Assassin’s Creed games have worked to reify a particular image of history and turn it into a playground of monuments – now that image of history is shaping what people expect to see from attempts to rebuild in the future. This is a particularly on-the-nose example of how videogames’ imaginaries contribute to wider cultural imaginaries. On its own, there’s nothing tremendously problematic about deciding to rebuild the spire in the image of its original design, but we should pay attention to these moments when we assume consent for investing resources in recreating the past rather than building something new.

Without wanting to engage in too much whataboutery, it might be worth noting that the Grenfell Fire did not stimulate this same cultural reflex – as I remember it, we did not all start commonsensically talking about how we’re going to rebuild our social housing stock, and as such we did not start looking at how videogames could help planners to imagine the way forward.

Rather than leaning on a self-congratulatory story about how videogames are helping to rebuild heritage, anybody committed to the cultural value of videogames has an opportunity here to be critical about what heritage is, what it does, and what other forms rebuilding could take.

In Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway talks about some of the imaginaries of flourishing and ongoingness that have developed in marginalised cultures – that is relevant here as we think about communities that have seen repeated destructions of their own heritage, through slavery, colonialism, and ongoing violence. A videogames culture that elevates marginalised voices could help to expand our imaginaries of the future. A videogames culture that values fringe work and creative risks might not be seen as an “unlikely source” for worldbuilding. A videogames culture that takes responsibility for its cultural role might offer futurisms other than gritty dystopias, disrupting the assumed dichotomy between conservation and ruin.

AMAZE Berlin events, including talk with Squinky!

I’ll be in Berlin next week for some cool events connected to the Rainbow Arcade exhibition at the Schwules Museum, as part of AMAZE festival. Come along and/or let me know if you want to hang out!

Rainbow Arcade meetup

Monday, April 8 • 14:00 – 18:00

Not sure I can get to this with my flight, but thought I would list it here anyway as it looks nice – details are on the Games Week Berlin website.

Something on Wednesday

To be announced, I guess?

Queer Gaming History chat

Thursday, April 11 • 19:00 – 20:00 (curator tour at 18:00)

I’m having an informal public talk thing with one of my favourite people, Squinky! Details on the AMAZE schedule page. Right before this is the curator tour, which they do every week – Details on the Schwules Museum website.

 

Hampering the search for real criticism: Personality-based content marketing

This is the fifth post in a series about why critical writing about games is hard to find – see part one here. It was inspired by an article by games producer Jessica Price, which seems on the surface to focus on a flimsy claim that there isn’t enough “real” critical writing being done – but which I think, given a more engaged editorial approach, had the potential to say something much more interesting. I could be wrong, but as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the intent of Price’s article is to argue that real criticism would foster an educated community of creators and audiences, within which it would be easier for art to thrive.

[W]ould we be making more art if customers demanded it? Probably, but that’s not the core audience for most triple-A games. Besides, very few sources are providing audiences with the tools to even recognise art when they encounter it. I’m speaking, of course, about the lack of genuine criticism in games.

Price is not wrong for identifying a problem here. It’s really hard to find audiences for art games, a problem that Nathalie Lawhead has been describing in great detail. My standpoint is that the problem is not a lack of “genuine criticism”, of which there is in fact plenty; the problem is a lack of ways to find that criticism, and an increasingly privatised and hierarchical online social context.

I wrote in an earlier post about how for a brief period of a few years, generating a conversation on social media through your writing was one of the main ways of attracting an audience. I also wrote about the ways that blogs used to foster connections between writers through comments and trackbacks. Not linking to source articles was considered very rude. Now it’s becoming commonplace, as criticism moves to Youtube and to mainstream outlets.

Many of the more popular video essayists on games don’t link to sources, and they don’t cross-promote likeminded creators. A while ago, I asked a major games criticism Youtuber why they won’t link to their sources or provide references for their videos, which rely heavily on the work of other critics – they told me that pointing people to the source makes people go off-topic in their discussion in the comments. What that tells me is that when it comes to video, the discussion happens in a closed space in the creator’s back yard. Unlike the old days of blogging, people aren’t going to click through to something and get involved in a new discussion on the other page – they want to stay in the community of Youtuber fans, and demonstrate their knowledge of the video creator’s source material to other fans – be it on the Youtube page itself, or in the Discord.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the games criticism Discords I’ve had access to so far are largely fan clubs for individual creators. In at least one of them, a lot of the active members are vulnerable minors, forcing the moderators to act essentially as unpaid youth workers to teens who are freaking out and lashing out, leading to a fraught situation that I can’t help but see as inevitably leading to abuse at some point, despite the good intentions of everyone involved – you know, standard internet stuff. These are not peer communities for writers and video makers to share thoughts and elevate each other’s work.

Does a positive peer-critique Discord exist somewhere? Probably, but the nature of Discords is that they are private, and operate best when they are small. Newcomers to games criticism are not likely to find them. I’m far from a newcomer, and I haven’t found one. Also, since Discord communication is synchronous, any community on the platform seems to exact quite a high price in terms of time and attention investment. I’ve never figured out how to be on a Discord and get writing done at the same time.

The unequal social dynamics of Discords are not inevitable, but it’s hard to imagine how a community would stay at least somewhat safe without keeping it closed, private, and hierarchical. When I log in to a Discord, I immediately see on the right a list of members grouped into hierarchical categories – the content creator around whom the community operates is often at the top, then other creators, who they perhaps consider their peers, are underneath, then the moderators, then maybe the paying patrons, and then everybody else. The content creators don’t often contribute to discussion in public areas of the Discord, except to share news and ask for feedback about possible topics for future videos. The discussion is mostly happening between people who enjoy consuming content created by the host, rather than people who are trying to make similar content and want to share ideas.

None of this is to say that people are doing something wrong by not making themselves emotionally available to their fans. I really don’t know what someone who makes Youtube videos can do to avoid fan culture. I imagine it is one of the costs of doing business as a critic in a context where audience sizes follow a power-law curve – most people don’t have much of an audience, and a small number have a large audience that now projects all kinds of psychological insecurities onto them. While a small audience won’t pay your bills, I imagine that for critics, serving a very large audience is unsustainable in a different way – you are no longer responding to interesting works of art, but to the demands of people who have put you at the centre of their online social lives. You’re not just creating video essays; you’re running a Discord server, streaming games at least a few nights a week on Twitch, and running a Patreon. How many people in that situation have time to read and respond to other people’s criticism? How many become increasingly isolated or overworked?

In general, I think that the personality-led dynamic is one of the biggest barriers to the kind of critical community that I see hinted at in Price’s article. It happens in text as well as video – or rather, mainstream games writing has had to adapt, out of a recognition that in order to sustain a large enough audience to stay afloat, you have to present a personality-based brand that is supported by video. This is the Giantbomb-Waypoint model – and if that’s your model, it perhaps becomes a little bit harder to work actively in dialogue with other writers. I wonder if it also affects how far you are able to support freelancers, if most of them are basically just randos as far as the audience is concerned.

If you’re an up-and-coming content creator on the internet today, you’re encouraged to think of your public personality as the thing that will sell your writing. You’re not just trying to be a critic – you’re trying to be an influencer. And that means that when someone asks “where is all the good criticism”, they are less and less likely to be directed to a community of peers, and more likely to be directed to a handful of minor internet celebrities, many of whom are rapidly burning out.

The alternative is to just have a day job, and then write on your blog or make zines – and this represents a dizzyingly large number of interesting games critics, who don’t have a large audience and who are writing to help themselves and their friends to develop ideas. For all the complaining I’ve done in this series of posts, it’s a model that still operates, and it still basically works, to the limited extent that it has ever worked. There’s no reason to think that “real” criticism needs a large audience in order to be relevant or successful. But that kind of niche critical writing isn’t easily found by someone asking “where is all the good writing about games?” So this kind of work is going to remain cyclical for the foreseeable future.

Hampering the search for real criticism: the algoritualism of Youtube culture

This is the fourth post in a series about problems facing games criticism – see part one here. It was inspired by an article by games producer Jessica Price, which appears to misguidedly imply that there is no in-depth games criticism being done. While I know for certain that a great deal of quality games criticism is being made every week – it was my job at Critical Distance to curate it for almost three years – I also think that this work is becoming harder and harder to find, unless you happen to know where to look. And despite appearing misinformed about the current state of games criticism, Price’s article brings up some insightful points about what criticism could offer games culture.

Video games are a geek medium, and the hallmark of the geek is passion and deep engagement. In theory, with an audience primed to devour and pore over every detail, the back-and-forth conversation we have through games should be richer than other media. It’s not.

Price hits on something about games culture here that I find deeply tragic. Yes, geek culture is primed to “pore over every detail”, but this can produce a wood-for-the-trees situation. People make massive amounts of content analysing games, but not everyone connects their experiences in a game to some wider issue, or synthesizes it all into a coherent, concise message. A lot of people are just collecting ludonarrative trinkets in large quantity, and showing off their discoveries like a sort of new media cabinet of curiosities. It used to be that people learned to be concise by writing – either because you believed that nobody would read a blog post over 3000 words, or because you were writing for an editor who helped you to figure out the actual point of what you were saying. These factors are weakening or vanishing for a few reasons: in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on video.

Video seems to get a much larger audience than writing, though my perception of this has admittedly been skewed by figures from Facebook that later turned out to have been falsified. It’s still a notion that makes intuitive sense though – after all, you can eat your dinner and watch a video, but reading requires constant use of your eyes, which makes it a bit difficult to wield a fork. With the sort-of demise of RSS and Twitter, Youtube has looked like the best place to build an audience – a stressful thing to contemplate if you’re someone whose identity makes you more vulnerable to abuse in Youtube’s rabid comments sections.

I have intense feelings about video as a medium for critical writing. My favourite movies are probably Adam Curtis films. To me, arguments have shapes to them, and it’s thrilling to see that shape sketched out using three different mediums at the same time – visuals, music, and narration. I’ve done a bit of video work, and had a taste of how bloody difficult it is to do it well, and how satisfying it is when once in a while you manage edit together a few seconds that actually communicate elegantly.* I don’t think video essays are killing good writing, or that they’re intrinsically bad in any way. But after just a few months at Critical Distance, I was utterly exhausted by them, and I never quite figured out what was the best way to deal with them amid the 300-500 other pieces I had to filter through every week: you can’t skim-read a video, and most Youtubers don’t upload their scripts (Heather Alexandra is a great exception to this), even though most games criticism is heavily reliant on narration, and treats visuals and music as necessary filler, rather than part of the medium of expression. Most of the video essays I was sent left me feeling like I was being forced to sit and do nothing while someone talked at me.

This is potentially a disastrous direction for games criticism to take. Imagine asking where all the “real games criticism” is, and being directed to a one-note feature-length movie where some unseen dude just talks endlessly in a monotone, “poring over every detail” about the level design in Far Cry 4 or whatever, with no clear thesis or conclusion. This overwhelmingly long video is on a website that is a hotbed of fascist recruitment, where the autoplaying next video suggested by Google is some alt-right windbag complaining about videogame feminists. It’s not encouraging. It’s not welcoming. It’s not what anybody imagines when they go looking for critical writing. But that’s where criticism has been steadily migrating since Twitter became less appealing.

There’s not much intrinsic to the medium of video that lends itself to directionless rambling. Most video essays about games are scripted first and then read into a microphone, so this isn’t exactly a case of a diarist talking to a camera unedited for a very long time. Remember the early years of Youtube, when it was believed that nobody would watch an internet video for longer than 5 minutes at a time? It’s just a memory now. By the end of my time at Critical Distance, I felt lucky if I was sent a video essay about games that was less than half an hour long. People who make content for Youtube say that the reason for this is a widespread belief about Google’s algorithm.

Youtubers often seem extremely algorithm-focused, in a way that borders on a kind of quasi-religious folk belief system. One tenet of this belief system is that shorter videos are deprioritised, whereas longer videos are given more prominence in people’s feeds. This is a shame, because it is extremely difficult to make a video that is both very long and high in quality – editing is time-consuming, and writing usually loses focus without a time constraint. There are exceptions to this: some videos by hbomberguy, who seems to be absurdly good at editing, make excellent use of their extended play time to submerge you in a particular game, make an abstract point about game design, and leave you feeling a tiny bit transformed. That said, looking at his channel now, many of my favourites are shorter than I remember: his excellent analysis of Undertale is only 14 minutes long, but it’s so rich that it feels much bigger. In general, a lot of good criticism videos only use 15 minutes or less to make a strong, coherent argument (most videos by Mark Brown, Chris Franklin, and Hamish Black are about this size) and thereby do what Price is looking for:

the critic is a guide, an educator, and an interpreter. The critic makes subtext text, traces themes, and fills in white space. Put another way, the critic helps the audience find deeper meaning in a piece of art.

Hbomb is also one of very few games criticism video creators who use the visual aspects of their medium to convey a way of seeing games – as other examples, I like to read Other Places as succinct, poignant, visual essays, and Satchell Drakes is extremely good at using real-world visuals to express a feeling that the video is exploring in a game. But a lot of video essayist games critics make little to no use of visuals or music to express their points. They read an essay they have written in advance, while gameplay footage is shown that may or may not be illustrative of what’s being read out. This easily goes on for an hour or longer sometimes.

When I’ve asked people how they can stand to watch a sprawling lecture for such a long period of time, people tell me that they don’t – they put these videos on in the background while they do something else. This kind of video may reportedly please the algorithm, but the audience isn’t paying attention. In this situation, the critic isn’t acting as an educator or guide – they’re just keeping their audience company for a while. That’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s not necessarily going to help somebody who is looking for games criticism for the first time.

This algoritualism that drives lower-quality, higher-quantity content production on Youtube is also why it’s very hard to find in-depth discussion of niche indie games, which limits the potential for insightful analyses: creators are in a competitive environment, and don’t want to keep their audience too limited. Chris Franklin shared some useful numbers on this today – this tweet was in the context of a thread about why he’s trying to find creative solutions to the problems facing anyone trying to cover indie games:

 

 

As well as being an unsupportive environment for indie games, Youtube games criticism suffers from poor representation of marginalised identities. It is also extremely cis-male-dominated, no doubt largely because it is a hostile space for women. Some exceptions to this include Alexandra Orlando, who does great, succinct work looking at games in a broader cultural context, and Red Angel, whose Late Night Ponderings provide valuable readings of niche indie games.

 

I understand why critics have turned to Youtube. It’s where people who like videogames already go to watch content related to their interests, and it’s noble to try and create an alternative to the alt-right rabbit hole for those people, many of whom are young and impressionable. It’s also sensible to go where you can get the most views. And the main alternative, Vimeo, explicitly had a no-videogames policy until just a couple of years ago. But when it comes to building the kind of community that Price calls for, Youtube is probably not that great of a fit for games critics – the results when you search “games criticism” on the site are mostly nonsense, so how are newcomers supposed to find the better work happening there?

People complain endlessly about the algorithm, but it is up to creators to decide how far they are going to cater to folk mythology about the whims of a secret AI. People passively rely on the recommendation algorithm to link their viewers to other related creators, even while recognising that the algorithm is making shorter, niche work invisible, and instead promoting far-right abusers who have targeted their peers for harassment. Meanwhile, there are under-utilised features on Youtube that could lend themselves to positive community-building in this space. This regularly-updated playlist of videos about art games is a good example of how the platform could be used for something other than harbouring toxic in-groups.

I often wonder what it would have been like if games criticism had found a home on platforms other than Youtube and Twitter. Vimeo is home to a lot of the more reflective, cinematic video essays about film, and it isn’t cluttered with the bizarre ramblings of angry young men. Imagine if the wider context in which games critics operated when it came to video was this relatively peaceful, niche community of people who make subtle arguments about cinematography?

Another problem with Youtube games criticism is a somewhat surprising lack of citation or linking to other voices. I’ll discuss this in the next post, which covers another problem that has emerged around Youtube but that also affects criticism in general – the focus on promoting individual personalities, which has been smothering opportunities to build creative communities.

Read part five


* Though I’ve never done the Youtuber thing, and I’m by no means a skilled video maker, I’m not a total stranger to it: I was able to participate in a documentary film course for trans people a couple of years ago, and as part of that I wrote and presented a short film about the role videogames play in trans people’s self-discovery, which got shown at a bunch of festivals; my video essay about single-point perspective was included in BFI Sight and Sound’s list of the best video essays of 2017; and I’m still trying to finish off a series of short films about people who collect and archive games.