Five Things That Give Me Hope About Videogames

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when we talk about videogames we tend to have this really insidious tendency to erase any and all of the things about them that don’t fit into this canon industry-endorsed historical narrative of “importance”. by importance i mean the “winners” – people like Shigeru Miyamoto, or Cliffy B, or Notch that embody this image of absolute success, artistic and/or commercial.

but the reality is, outside those big success stories, there are a billion and one different interesting stories surrounding everyone who is and has been moving in and out and around videogames in the last 35 or so years. and those are often the people we should be researching, and analyzing, and criticizing, and holding up or putting down, as writers and designers who are supposedly educated and informed about videogames. but they’re often completely unknown to us.

it’s this weird thing with videogames, that there are so many off-shoots and subcultures and sub-communities that often seem have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and certainly aren’t much aware of each other. i’m sure being at GDC, or the IGF, or Critical Distance or Lost Levels or whatever we would like to think of ourselves of being in the epicenter of important things happening around videogames, but i’m afraid i’ll have to say that we’re not. because in reality, there are many epicenters all around the globe. not just in places like the Bay Area or NY or LA.

there’s been a lot of talk about the problems of the industry and videogame culture, but a lot of it tends to end up centering back on whatever’s the next biggest thing, even when it’s all the problems with the next biggest thing. i understand there are a lot of reasons why critics do this – because that’s what they know, or that’s what people read – but it ends up feeding back into these games’ PR cycles in the end.

and even when we look at the more “revolutionary” side of game criticism – when we try to torch the past completely and start anew, we’re ignoring all the threads from the past that might actually help us establish something genuinely sustainable and not just be making a fad that looks good on paper and then burns out in a few years or so. i feel like we’re already starting to see that burnout! so it’s really important, if we are genuinely committed to this videogame thing, that we sit down and start to take this stuff seriously.

that’s not to say that these subcultures don’t come with all sorts of the crippling cultural problems baked into them, like misogyny, and insularity, and xenophobia, and self-destructive community politics. we should absolutely talk about these things. but in order to understand how videogames have existed and continue to exist as a medium, we need to understand what good has come out of these subcultures so that we can hopefully extract it from the bad and make something better with it.

so without further ado:

“archivists” – though videogames have a relatively short history, there’s been a massive output of things made over that 35 or so years. we tend to forget about all the strange one-offs and dead-ends, so that’s why i like sites like hardcoregaming101 that attempt to archive all these odds and ends and remind us that there was actually a time not to long ago when there was no definition of what videogames were or weren’t supposed to be. the writing isn’t usually very great but as a resource for general information i’d say it’s pretty essential. i’ve also found there are also a lot of people who take it upon themselves to keep blogs up, or put youtube videos of gameplay of basically anything you can think of. even non-english language stuff too, like this polish game, which i never ever would’ve heard of or had any experience of if not for youtube. not to mention stuff like this comprehensive c64 database that archives basically an entire chapter of game history.

even stuff like music archives –

i bet some of you didn’t even know that there are such a thing as 8-bit atari computers, and yet here you can go to this site and download every single piece of atari chiptune music ever put online in like 5 minutes or less

that’s not to say this stuff isn’t still ephemeral and fragile – the big torrent site undergroundgamer going offline in the past year for example means we could have a fairly significant chunk of game history that might be lost to the abyss. and that’s really scary. but knowing the effort so many people go to to preserve the things they experienced and loved in the past and keep it accessible in some way is pretty heartwarming. that love is something we tend to forget in a culture that has so many other glaring problems.

“videogames as performance” – here’s a selfie of tri-hex, a speedrunner known for his spastic, almost performative play style of yoshi’s island. watching him play is a weirdly pleasurable experience, and not something you’d associate with someone playing a platformer.

of course the biggest example of games as performance is the FGC, or fighting game community. the FGC attracts a lot of people not normally very present of other game communities, especially people of color. the level of skill in the elite players is something that cannot be understated, and can take years of training but is often hard to parse for people who don’t know the specific games – which is one of the reasons for its insularity. speedrunning, though it’s easier to show off exploits and glitches to the uninitiated, is also really hard to appreciate without explanation – which is why i really appreciated the recent Awesome Games Done Quick stream.

and then there’s stuff like this:

which uses a tool to program Super Mario World just with button presses from controller inputs and make a game within a game. this kind of reverse engineering is pretty awesome, and just shows how committed some people are to understanding and unlocking new ways of looking at things they love.

“mods” – historically modding communities were often filled with young people looking to get into the industry, by making stuff using the most accessible tools they could get their hands on. there are a fair number of Doom and Quake modders from back in the mid to late 90’s, for example, that ended up with jobs in the industry. now that that’s no longer the case, modding scenes are for people dedicated to particular games, or who are maybe looking to concentrate on just being creative with the design and not have to worry about making tons of resources or learning much code.

my favorite mod i’ve ever played is a Doom Mod called A.L.T. made by a group of Russian modders. it’s from 2012 so therefore permanently relegated to obscurity, not to mention very few people even in the small Doom community seem to care about it – which i guess comes down to anglo/euro-centrism and weird community priorities. it’s so infuriating to me because i’m like “can’t you see this thing is art??” when so few things from that community strike me as particularly interesting in really any way. and yet very few people seem to care at all, inside or outside that community.

and i think that’s one of the things that gets us to the center of this problem of creative online communities which can birth some really unique and amazing stuff, while at the same time actively sweeping that stuff under the rug if it doesn’t fit the standards of that particular community. and so a lot of that stuff just sits in obscurity.

anyway, mods are a huge topic, and a modder himself – Robert Yang, has written and talked a lot about this so you should read his articles on RPS and check out the talks he’s given about it.

“games as tools” – ‘games’ can be a great way to explore creativity outside of this idea of maximum usability. i’m sure some of you’ve seen some of the art i’ve been making with Andi McClure and Michael Brough’s “become a great artist in 10 seconds” program. that program sits in some kind of strange intersection between being a game, a tool, and an absurdist joke. the way it’s laid out is so arbitrary and esoteric, and half the buttons aren’t really that useful most of the time. not to mention the really jarring sounds. and yet i’ve found it to be this strangely powerful tool because i’m so enamored with how esoteric it is. because it doesn’t subscribe to conventional ideas of “usability”, i’ve formed an emotional attachment to it. and i could never really say about the audio program Reason, for example, a tool which i’ve used to make music for over 10 years. so just imagine what else could be done if we aspired to go outside existing models of thinking about how tools are be made and make something like this!

“outsiders” – as it turns out, there are a lot of people who are getting involved with this videogame thing – like queers and women and people of color – or people who don’t live in the US or Europe or Japan. and that’s really exciting, but also maybe let’s fix our eyes on people outside of videogameland like, say…

..this thing, which was made possible by some person called Bjork. she has a series of apps around her most recent album, a lot of them are closer to tools, but a few of them are more like games. as a huge fan of her and her music i was excited to see her dip into this videogame-like stuff, but i couldn’t seem to get many game developer friends to share that excitement.

or maybe we can look at this quite frankly amazing youtube video called “MyZaZa” by a group who makes art videos called Famicon. or this amazing short film called “Apeiron” (appear-on) made on an amiga. or all the kinds of weird, videogame-ish net art that exits online made by people who aren’t necessarily involved at all with videogames. or if we really want to get into this, why can’t we start watching more films, and reading more books, and listening to more albums and looking at more paintings?

cultural insularity is my number one, biggest problem with games. i think we should live in a universe that brings all these disparate things together and allows people the freedom to dip in and out of them and make what they want instead of feeling pressured by these super limiting, often oppressive community values. but that’s not the world we live in unfortunately! and i find that really disappointing, especially when i see the revolutionary side still enforcing the same kinds of oppressive values.

let me put it bluntly – if we can’t find ways to engage in dialogue with stuff outside our own communities and subcultures, what we say and do is destined to obscurity. which is why we need to sit down and take this stuff seriously, so we can create the sort of communities we would like to see.

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