Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TotalBiscuit's Weasel Screed

Video game youtuber TotalBiscuit decided to weigh in yesterday on the continuing harassment of indie game developer Zoe Quinn. That link, from Vice, summarizes the situation so far and the vicious comments beneath it also embody the situation. TotalBiscuit's post, on the other hand, is a disappointing hand-washing of the whole thing. TotalBiscuit obviously has a lot of viewers, and that he decided to address rumors and allegations instead of challenge or refute them is beyond disappointing to the point of being harmful.

Perhaps the most egregious thing about TotalBiscuit's post is that it came out in the very opening act of this controversy, laden with a striking lack of Benefit of the Doubt. Watch as time and time again he comes close to accusing her, brandishing his admonishments, before withdrawing with a "but we don't REALLY know what happened."

His post, no words removed, with my emphasis and emboldened commentary in brackets:

--START--

So I initially got a tweet from someone asking me about my opinion on the "Zoey Quinn scandal". I had no idea what they were talking about, I hadn't heard anything about it. I have the parents here this week and stuff with the oncologist so I'm kind of disconnected aside from occasional DOTA. The person tried to outline it over tweets, which never works out well since you can't fit in enough information and I kind of dismissed it as another piece of pointless drama. After some rather inflammatory replies with a few accusations and people using maymay arrows, as was the custom at the time, I looked a bit further and found all manner of insanity, with many people spamming outlets and personalities asking for opinions. It looks like a fairly organized campaign and the missus let me know about it, she'd been getting info too and had read up. [Sure, whatever.]

The long and short of it is that Zoey Quinn the developer of Depression Quest is being accused of exploiting the nepotism that tends to plague this industry by getting a bunch of favorable coverage from people she has supposedly slept with. [This is where it's relevant to video games, but the arguments posed by commentators also have issue with her alleged infidelity (which is nobody's business) and feminism in general (which is what most of this is really about.)]

In addition to this, videos supposedly critical of these actions have been taken down from Youtube with copyright claims, including a video by a smaller channel called MundaneMatt. It's difficult to tell what is true and what is not. [Emphasis mine, good job so far...] 

4chan is all up in arms over it which means that alongside any truth there's always going to be ridiculous stories and trolling attempts. 4chan is a blunderbuss. It's a giant cannon filled with fuckin screws, nails, bodyparts, shit and waifu. When it fires, maybe 1% of it hits and the other 99% just goes everywhere and makes a mess. Added into this whole drama shitstorm is a cadre of SJW types and whoever it is that is opposed to that, MRAs? I don't even know the terminology at this point and frankly I don't fucking care. [Spot on about 4chan, but then... First use of the term "Social Justice Warrior." The use of this term shows an extreme ignorance over what social justice actually is. Throwing "MRAs" in there is an appeal to his ignorance. That's all fine and good, except even below he continues to use "SJW" as a slur. So he's actively using terms he admittedly doesn't understand.]

The kind of places posting information about this whole thing are also places I'd take with a pinch of salt or who already have a clearly outlined agenda. [Okay, yeah, good] Internetaristocrat did the main video on this, a channel mostly dedicated to debunking SJW topics and complaining about how prevalent they are in todays media. A fair cause for the most part, though it's a fine line to walk at the best of times. Honestly that whole debate is something I try and stay the hell away from because the people involved in it are fucking terrifying. [This is where he starts really spinning the bullshit. Saying that "debunking SJW topics" is a "fair cause" and saying that the people involved in social justice are "fucking terrifying" is not "staying the hell away" from anything. It is taking a clear, anti-social justice stance, even AFTER saying that he doesn't understand what social justice is. Don't be a fucking weasel about it.]

What is clear however are two things.

1) Using the DMCA to take down criticism of your product is a terrible idea and is unethical if not in many cases flat-out illegal. Don't ever fucking do this. The Streisand effect is real and even if it isn't, you don't get to run around using copyright law to censor people. My understanding is that Zoe Quinn is accused of taking down one of Mundanematts videos because it used a picture of her game "without permission". With the insane shitstorm currently in the air it's impossible to know if that's actually true or not. If it is, it's bullshit. You do not do this, it is disgusting behavior and previous incidents such as Garrys Incident and Guise of the Wolf that resulted in the public obliteration of the developers reputation should be reason enough not to. [This is the primary point of attack for people who realize that her personal life is off-limits and that the Nathan Grayson nepotism claims are weak. And from TotalBullshit, we get more weasel words. "IF she did it, IT'S FUCKING BULLSHIT DISGUSTING BEHAVIOR. But only if, it's impossible to say. But if she did IT'S UNETHICAL." The tone here really betrays his biases.]

However. It is entirely possible that she did not issue this claim and that it's someone impersonating her. It's easier than it should be to do this on Youtube because Youtubes system is terrible. That's always worth bearing in mind, even though the evidence I've seen up to this point seems to indicate that she is responsible. Again, you can't see very far in a shitstorm. ["Well, my vision is blurry but I'm pretty sure she did it. Not saying I know she did it. Just that I'm pretty sure she did, sure enough to let my thousands of fans continue believing it without real evidence. But I'm not gonna actually say she did, because I just don't know."]

2) Games journalism as a whole has a massive nepotism problem, encouraged by the publishers and developers and actively partaken in by many outlets. There are plenty who don't, whether they be independent Youtube channels or important websites like Giantbomb, who made the decision not to review Bastion due to their connections with Greg Kasavin. Maintaining your independence or at the very least being completely honest about your relationship with the developer is paramount to maintaining the trust of your audience. So much shit goes on behind the scenes, more than you could ever possibly know about. I personally find things like industry parties thrown by devs and attended by the media, enthusiast press or otherwise to be a waste of money and time but more importantly an element that horribly muddies the waters in our line of work. It's one thing to be more willing to provide coverage because you happen to know a developer, it's quite another to not disclose that and then create a favorable review of a product, [didn't happen] whether it be the final product or repeated pushes to the greenlight page [also didn't happen]. Transparency in all things is important. People are going to have friends in the industry, that's natural. They are also going to try and help them when they can, they just need to be straight up about it and be very careful about keeping their bias in check. [This is actually the most reasonable paragraph in the whole thing. Perhaps the only reasonable paragraph, but again, it adopts a "guilty until proven innocent" tone near the end. But I also want to say: it doesn't matter what scene or industry you're a part of, journalists and their covered scenes will always have close relationships. Whether you're a blog regurgitating PR (which happens all the time), or are using your connections to get ahead (which everybody does anywhere) or to find a story, there's a professional give and take in any industry between journalists and whoever they're covering. And yeah, I don't know the details of Grayson and Quinn's relationship (nor do I care), but he WOULD have been in the wrong IF he had given Depression Quest a favorable review without revealing his connection to her. But that's not what happened at all. Nobody is "fucking their way to the top," as she is being accused of everywhere else. Even pre-hivemind, Zoe Quinn wasn't anywhere near "the top," and saying that she fucked her way anywhere is a tactic to delegitimize her actual work in the industry.]

If these allegations are true I'm certainly disappointed in the outlets responsible. Depression Quest is not a good videogame, but I tweeted about it because even though it wasn't a good game it did a good job of conveying a message about depression which is a very real thing that's touched those around me. It's a horrible condition that is misunderstood and any effort to raise awareness and understanding about it is positive in my opinion. Doesn't make DQ a good game, it's basically a choose your own adventure novel and should be treated as such. Whether it should have been greenlit is something that's not really worth discussing at this point. A ton of absolute horseshit has been greenlit, the process is clearly busted in every way, might I remind you that the 1st ever wave of Greenlit titles which contained many worthwhile games (whereas these days good luck finding a game you can even recognize in a list), also contained Yogventures, a game that didnt exist at the time and doesn't exist now either, purely on the basis that Yogscast were popular. The process has been broken from the very start and I've pretty much given up on the idea that it will ever be fixed or that Valve really cares about content curation at all right now. But the quality of the game really isn't up for discussion, nor is its place on Steam, what is up for discussion is whether or not outlets went beyond the realm of "personal favour" into obvious bias, whether they disclosed it and, the thing which really makes my bloodboil, whether efforts are being made to abuse the DMCA system to censor criticism of the developer. If that is the case, I thoroughly condemn it in every respect. [This paragraph is probably the most confusing in this whole screed. What does it have to do with what's at hand? "Depression quest is not a good game. Really not a good game. Not a good game, right? Good at what it does, but not a good game, probably not worth getting greenlit. But honestly, it's REALLY not worth talking about how bad of a game it is. What really makes me angry are the DMCA claims I brought up a couple paragraphs ago that I'm not sure but am pretty sure are true."]

The problem is this. Even after reading a ton of info on this, I still have no idea how much of it is true, how much of the controversy is genuine concern about the state of the industry and how much is just rabble-rousing for the sake of it. Misogyny is very real in the games industry, it's pretty disgusting, but it's also a problem that is not confined to our industry and most of what is being said about it is repetitive noise. Any right-thinking individual knows that hating women is bad, we don't need libraries worth of articles to tell us that. We know that some people that play videogames are also horrible pieces of shit. Problem is some of those people are in on this discussion, it was obvious the moment I started getting Twitter replies about it. Some people make their agendas really obvious from the outside. Stuff like this is a good reason to NOPE the fuck out of most of these discussions. I don't want to be involved in them.  [A real teachable moment for everybody: "Misogyny is very real in the games industry. So real that people have opinions on it and have heated conversations. That's why it's a good idea not to talk about it." ]

Here are the 2 things I'm interested in talking about.

1) Game mechanics
2) Industry bullshit

This falls into the second category but it also has an unhealthy dash of 

3) SJW/Tumblr/4chan/arguments/whatthefuckisevengoingon
[The word you're looking for is "controversy." But obviously controversy that makes you uncomfortable isn't worth discussing.]

Last time I got involved in anything like that I ended up with all manner of unpleasant shit thrown at me from both sides, which is maybe also why a lot of those with the loud voices get very quiet when things like this happen. You are throwing yourself in front of the blunderbuss and hoping it doesn't hit you. It's often just not worth the aggro. I got enough real life cancer to fight without having to deal with the fake internet stuff. Chemo gives me less headaches than this stuff. [I'm sorry you have cancer TotalBiscuit, hope you get better. Also hope you learn to use your position for positive ends in the future, instead of perpetuating mob mentality.]

TL:DR - If Zoey Quinn did engage in censorship via the abuse of the DMCA on Youtube then I thoroughly condemn her actions as being both fucking stupid and unethical. [This is a whole nother conversation, but a private individual using the youtube report function - a function you agree to when you sign all the checkboxes at registration - is NOT censorship.] If outlets did provide her favourable coverage because she had intimate relations with some of the writers, they're goddamn idiots for doing it, why the hell would you compromise the trust of your readers for that? [didn't happen, I guess that won't stop you from pre-emptively calling them "goddamn idiots."] The shitstorm is too insane right now to make a huge amount of sense of and I have no idea what is true and what isn't. Cooler heads prevail, heard of that phrase? Calm the fuck down and things might become clearer. Also please stop shouting at me, thanks. [All in all, dismissive bullshit that totally avoids any question of responsibility by refusing to acknowledge his own obvious position and taking seriously the allegations of an angry ex boyfriend deciding that his fifteen minutes of fame are finally here.]

--END-

Edit: Read this post: "On Right-Wing Video Game Extremism."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Play and The Cosmic Calendar

I love the concept of the Cosmic Calendar as presented in Cosmos. It does a good job of making comprehendible something that's impossible to comprehend - the billions and billions of years it took to get where we are today. The Cosmic Calendar is a visual metaphor that divides up the history of the universe into the 365 days of the gregorian calendar. All of human civilization takes place on the last day, December 31st. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all did their thing within the last five SECONDS of this calendar.


It's mind-boggling.

On the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned that sex - referring to the biological process of cellular reproduction, minus the bulk of its cultural meaning to us - is as old as early November. That's about 2 billion years ago. And all of humanity, starting with apes? About 5 million years, or starting in the morning on December 31st.

So I wondered, with all that time between the beginning of sex and the beginnings of humanity, when did Play come along? Huizinga's Homo Ludens begins thusly: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequaty defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men."


Despite this compelling introduction, Huizinga's book is a historical account of play in solely the timeline of human civilization and culture. He accounts for play in the last few thousand years, but before that? When did the animals learn to play? Is play as old as multicellular organisms?

What if it's older than sex?

Maybe it's only as old as consciousness itself. For Huizinga says, "in play, there's always something at play." Perhaps the object of play, whether a concept or a ball, requires a field of consciousness to exist in. Or perhaps play gave rise to consciousness. I'm shooting in the dark here.

Still, it's an interesting question. How old is play? To answer this question would shed light on the nature of play itself.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Saga: Vol. 3

I went to Dragon's Lair last night to pick up Saga volume 3, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Saga is a modern space opera that follows a pair of forbidden lovers and their baby across the galaxy, with bounty hunters, royals, and now a pair of tabloid journalists in hot pursuit.

Vaughn has a way with family themes and cheap-shot pathos (a la Pride of Baghdad) that makes this book a total page turner. While set in a fantastic sci-fi universe with magical creatures and badass technology, the sci-fi element of these books takes backseat to the modern, human story. These characters use smart-phones, have crazy sex, curse endlessly, and have to call roadside assistance when their spaceships break down. They have family arguments and have to deal with love, jealousy, and who changes the baby. Staples' artwork does a brilliant job conveying extremely personal emotions, some I'm not sure I've seen in comic format before.

Yet Saga is endlessly romantic. Our main characters are beautiful, have magical powers, know the right thing to say more than half the time, and are generally heroic. The man has horns on his head and the woman has wings on her back. They could only exist in this fantastical space opera universe, filled with unexpected creatures, obstacles, and technology. Sometimes they verge on a little too perfect - Vaughn seems to know exactly which heartstring to pull next. Even their mistakes are adorable.

This is a book that stokes the imagination. It knows what it's doing, too: one of the central themes is the power of the written word to inspire people. Our heroes go against the grain of their respective societies, and even the ruthless killers that pursue them have to reconsider the way they do things. Everybody has to step outside of their comfort zones, including the arrogant Prince Robot IV. And outside of that comfort zone, characters in this saga seem to tend toward compassion and deep emotional understanding. There's a lot of crying and reconciliation, and a lot of our heroes finding the inner strength they need to continue.


It's good book, I recommend it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on The Stanley Parable

A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.


The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.

A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?

The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.

Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.

The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.

The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Soundself



My friend Robin's game Soundself went to Burning Man this year. It's an awesome project and a lot of people are astounded with it. The book full of well-wishers is real, and huge.

I helped build a third of the installation for a test run right before one of the Indiecade Annex parties. I'm in this video lumbering around somewhere. (I'm also in the beginning of the kickstarter video). I'm surprised I haven't posted about this game before actually.

The game is still a work in progress. Instead of a videogame, Robin is calling it a "videodream," a name I suggested after hearing his working term was "experiential non-game." His definition is fascinating. But before I say anything about genre, I want to talk about Soundself specifically.

I think Soundself can best be described as a kind of mirror. It listens to the player and reflects its algorithmic interpretation. The psychedelic kaleidoscopic visuals react dynamically to qualities in one's voice.

The dream is interesting for a few reasons. From one angle, Soundself feels like it's alive, communicating with you in a very intimate way. From another, it feels like a mirror, almost as if it's showing you a picture of your soul. It's a playful, relaxing, therapeutic experience at the moment. Having to sustain even the weakest note (especially in front of other people) and seeing the beauty that comes out of that sustained effort is a special experience. (Keep in mind I've only played it in public settings so my experience reflects that).

I think Robin is going for something a lot more profound than "therapeutic" though. Is it a mirror of the soul? Is it something alive, with something to say about life? Is it a tool for discovering greater truths? I'm excited to see what he comes up with. Apparently the visuals are completely revamped from when I played it.

Robin's game (dream) is part of a nascent genre. but oh snap I just got my iPhone, hold on.

The Cyberpunk Question

Cyberpunk has made a resurgence in recent years. Former tabletop games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are reincarnated as video games. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash seem to be getting movies soon. Ghost in the Shell has a new season. The last Deus Ex game was very popular. These hard-boiled cyber-crime works are gaining new relevance in a world not so different than the ones they depict.

The resurgence in Cyberpunk works begs a question. It's not a question about the resurgence, not really a "why now?" Instead, it's a "what now?" Cyberpunk has shown to be so prophetic that it's becoming a mirror for society, and it wants us to think about that.

The subreddit /r/Cyberpunk has about 34,000 subscribers. Since the content is not strictly moderated, submissions range from simple images to game trailers to news articles. These submissions represent a group negotiation of the meaning of cyberpunk. That meaning?

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic. It's cluttered, technological, dirty, omniscient and everywhere. It also carries a deep sense of paranoia and wrongness, from the conspiratorial moves of the AI in Neuromancer to the edge-of-reality busting in The Matrix. It's noir, run through the mill of globalization and corporatism. Secrets fight other secrets in silent technological wars.

A central theme on /r/Cyberpunk is "this is society today." The community treats the works of the older cyberpunk artists (Gibson, Stephenson, Masamune, Scott) as prophetic, pointing to the evidence in today's world. It's not a hard argument to make, as more and more aspects of our world take on those of a cyberpunk dystopia: the government monitors all communication, multinational corporations are incredibly powerful, technology is near-inseparable from everyday life, and the activities of hackers really do matter in the big picture. All the technology that make cyberpunk action sequences cool - HUDs, robots, cyborg augmentation, etc - is well in development, if not already in practical use.

When the comparison between that fiction and everyday life is so obvious, and the gap between the two is so small, one question keeps the gap from closing: what do we do now? I consider this the cyberpunk question.

That is, "what do we do now?" is the question cyberpunk asks us in 2013. We're on the train, pulling up to the station. Our stop is The Sprawl, a technological dystopia where mega-corporations make the rules and the lower classes use what technology they can to scrape up a living. Is this where we get off?

The word "punk" in cyberpunk usually confuses newcomers to the genre. Is it just a synonym for "cool?" Is it rebellious? It sounds like something you might want to be, a cyberpunk. It sounds better than "nerd" anyway. There are cyberpunk manifestos out there on the net, and apparently Timothy Leary started a group that called themselves cyberpunks (and eventually got involved with Billy Idol, who ruined it all). It seems to have always been a shaky thing to base an identity on. Users on /r/Cyberpunk who post about "cyberpunk fashion" tend to get slagged.

We can't easily identify as cyberpunk. But what about the cyberpunk question? What does the idea of "punk" mean to that?

Punk, in the abstract, is about doing things with disregard for any convention. Convention in the original context of punk usually meant rules, and rules usually meant authority. In the context of cyberpunk, authority is usually presented as conspiracy.

Protagonists in cyberpunk works are constantly finding out new truths and betrayals, some that bend reality. The anti-terrorist groups in Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell are physically near-invincible, so their main antagonists are mysterious and intangible (conspiracy and a baby AI respectively). In other works, like Gibson's novels, protagonists range from everyday hackers to veteran mercenaries. Their main antagonists are also mysterious, and usually not revealed until the end of the book.

Cyberpunk is largely about uncovering and resisting the mysterious forces that deign to use and control the everyday lives of regular people. It's usually a battle fought through different mediums, using technology to uncover and share information.

There are people fighting that fight today. The stories of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are stories of the now, not the future. Those two are being persecuted by the U.S. Government for revealing its secrets. Predictably, their stories as well as other stories about the NSA have made the /r/Cyberpunk page a few times.

The story of reddit itself is pretty cyberpunk. That there even exists a place on the net where people can share information so fluidly and in such large quantities is incredible. The site is a beacon for info junkies. It's also a staging ground for modern political activists, such as the Occupy movement, or the anti-PATRIOT ACT /r/RestoreTheFourth. In these sites, people gather to share and uncover the truth, to find the root of the problem and discuss what can be done about it. Those communities are communities of resistance, and they're framed by an architecture of free information.

The creators of reddit are the most cyberpunk of all. In today's world, hackers are the architects of society. Like in the digital world of Snow Crash, every structure on the net is hand-crafted by somebody slouched back covered in LED light. Reddit is a structure that is helping shape modern democratic dialogue. To endlessly quote McLuhan, "the medium is the message." If reddit is a message, I think that message is part of the answer to the cyberpunk question.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Two reviews, Fez, Space Graffiti


Yes, that's my name (minus one 'l') in the Fez credits. PC QA team! I can't honestly say I did too much - I logged the handful of bugs I found. But there it is, and this blog is mostly for bragging.

My tumblr has two new posts on it as of today. I wrote a couple game reviews. One is for Fez and one is for Gone Home. Both are excellent games that do very different things, and I highly recommend you read my reviews then follow their advice, which is to buy the games.

Finally, I'm back on the radio this fall. I'll be on 91.7fm KVRX Austin every Thursday night from 8-9pm. That's a veteran timeslot y'all! The show is called Graffiti in Space and it's freeform. I imagine I'll be playing 60's prog, 90's indie, noise and desert rock, some stoner metal, some psychedelic stuff, some hip-hop, trip-hop, blade-runner-soundtrack kind of stuff. So tune into that!