I’ve written about Problematic in the past, with the simple premise that there are no non-problematic faves, and the baked-in nature of the colonialist world we live in is fundamentally damaged. Recent events (a hot take shot from the hip) put the term in stark relief and so, since you’re all so very interested in telling me what I should think about it, clearly you’ll be interested to hear me expound. Right? Right? You’re not just looking to complain at a stranger?
This is spurred in part by recent reading about Dream Daddy. Because that’s a thing I started caring about despite having literally no interest, whatsoever, in wanting to play it, for any reason, at all, gosh dangit. With that in mind there’s going to be a minor spoiler to a thing I don’t care about but let’s take it under the fold anyway. It also involves the genders. Continue reading →
Paratext, the term, comes from the work of Gérard Genette, a literary theorist from France. He’s contemporary to Roland Barthes, the person who coined the now-widespread term ‘death of the author.’ Genette is the indie band of mainstream literary theory, the one you namedrop to indicate you didn’t just get your academic study from channers screaming about the death of the author in threads about the sanctity of subtitles or something. The book of his you’ll want to namedrop here is Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.
To define Paratext, first we need to define text. Text is basically, the stuff of the work. If the work is a story book, for example, the text is literally just the story from beginning to end plus all the illustrations involved. If it’s a comic book, it’s every panel, how they’re arranged, what is in them, what they say. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s again, the words that make up that set of instructions, all the illustrations explaining it. The text of a painting is, basically, just the painting itself, the image and how it expresses itself in the world. Text is, broadly speaking, easiest to nail down when you’re talking about books: The text is the stuff the author (or authors) made to tell you.
“What about videogames,” you ask, well, that’s where things get muddier and where I think I disagree with some speakers on similar theories like Dan Olsen. But let’s save that for later.
When Genette coined the idea of paratext, he focused on books. Books, boy does Genette love books. Paratext, to him, was the threshold between the text and the not-text. Your lunch isn’t part of the text, very clearly, so that gap is easy to see – but the gap between the cover of the book and the text inside it, that’s not so obvious. The title of a book? Its table of contents? Publishers’ notes? The year it was published, as information? The weight of the book, the feel of it, the type of paper? These, Genette said, were its paratext, and they were the “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: A privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.”
Which sounds fancy, but we’ve had some years to work on it. Paratext, once the idea was established, became pretty important to how we recognise the ways in which people experience media. Genette, for example, with his loving focus on books, didn’t do a lot of good for the unsighted people in the world who have a much more limited experience of the paratext of books, but definitely have a stronger attenuation to audiobooks. So we worked on ‘paratext.’ The working definition I use is:
Paratext is media created as a requirement to experience a text
So, if we’re talking about an audiobook, the voice actor and the speaker quality and the freedom of movement it gives you while you listen is itself, part of the paratext of that book. If we’re talking about a painting, a surrounding gallery environment is part of its paratext – you need those things to experience that painting though if the painting’s location or form changed, so to could that environment.
And now we’re on to videogames.
I forward the idea that play is paratext. That is, the text of a game is the stuff that’s ‘stuck down,’ in the game, without a ludonarrative element; it’s the artwork, the models, the spaces designed, the construction and cinematography of cutscenes, the choices in editing and when and where the audience is given and loses control. That is text, but in order to experience any of that, you have to play it. You, a hypothetical you, a player, has to engage with the work and create a play experience in order to ‘see’ that text.
But then, that asks, doesn’t that make the play experience ‘not-text’? Well, sort of but also not really. It’s a threshold. Just as how the original structure of a game may work on the basic assumption you’re not going to stand still and wait for the timer to run out, there are assumptions of things that make the text a reasonable experience. You bring yourself to the table and you play, and you interpret, and in so doing, you create part of the game that’s there for the play experience.
This is part of why it’s so hard to analyse videogames in particular in terms of broad textual analysis, because a lot of people have it in their heads that there’s one singular model of how the game ‘should’ play, or two or three forking forms of it, without embracing the idea that part of the game is the player experiencing it. That competence and skill change the way a game feels, that pre-baked literacy or an absence of it changes what a game says. The ludic ballet of a speedrunner glitching around whole problems while perfectly evading random generated elements is as much the game as is the stilting steps of the first-time gamer learning how to aim and walk at the same time. What’s more, the idea of this paratextual element means we can look at things in terms of the general ways in which players tend to be pushed – we can view the play paratext in aggregate of experiences (the way lots of people create the paratext) or we can view each paratext as an individual interpretation that has potential to be interesting for consideration.
If we recognise play as paratext, we recognise ourselves as part of the creation of it. And that, that right there, is one of the most powerful things about games: Games let us create some of the text for ourselves.
By the way, Genette is still alive and I really, really hope he’s not reading this because he’s an old bloke and I doubt he gives two toots about videogames.
I promised myself I wouldn’t just throw rocks at US currency for being bad, because let’s face it, most things in America can be pointed at as being a little bit crap. I could make articles for days, standing outside the United States saying look at what this asshole does or look at how this crappy crap works, isn’t it crap, and I don’t wanna be that guy. But.
Currency is a practical element of an economic nation, and that’s fine, I mean, if we’re going to have it, we’re going to need it, and I’m not going to get into Hill People conversations right now. But currency is more than a purely pragmatic piece of government infrastructure: It is the most commonly produced, reproduced, and seen artwork that a nation has. Currency lets you reflect, to your citizens, in everyday ways, things that matter to you all. It is one of those places where media and community can feed into one another, and thanks to their passive practical application people will slowly, osmotically internalise the importance of these figures.
Don’t get me wrong: Australians broadly speaking do not know the people on most of their currency. But when you use their names, they often can attach those names to people.
Now, I want to start complaining about American currency infrastructurally (why do you still have pennies and dollar bills and cotton notes you galloping goons), and there’s a time for that, but let’s not, and instead I’m going to talk about what’s on the notes. This is easy, compared to talking about the Australian notes, because the American notes are kind of churned out to a really basic theme.
Now, I’m just going to focus on the common circulation bills here: The $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 notes. There are some bills of higher value than that, but they are silly, and dumb, and let’s throw rocks at them.
Anyway, in order, those bills feature on their front faces George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, Ben Franklin. On the reverse, they feature The Seal of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Lincoln Memorial, the Treasury Department Building, The White House, The Capitol, and Independence Hall.
Now, this basic structure was picked in 1914, and has only been slightly changed since then (like, the bills shrunk). The people on bills can be basically broken into two major historical beats: The Civil War (Grant and Lincoln), and Founding Fathers-Era Stuff; early presidents and signitaries of the Declaration of Independence.
And… Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Jackson. What the fuck.
Content Warning: Following video contains some insensitive ways to describe what might have been mental illness or may have just been some gigantic asshole:
Andrew Jackson, in case you weren’t aware, is basically the kind of thing the Constitution was meant to prevent happening. You can scratch this pyramid of a life and see that every layer down reveals something worse. It wasn’t enough that his Presidential Inauguration party was so raucous he had to sneak out, fill bathtubs on the lawn with whiskey and then sneak in while his revellers ran out onto the lawn and get more hammered there. Andrew Jackson used to duel as a hobby – and no, I don’t mean he liked to fence, I mean he liked to go out behind the actual White House and shoot people in the face over ridiculous slights. At least once he was actually shot and responded by killing the person who shot him. This was while he was President. Jackson used his last days in office to recognise Texas as an independent country because he didn’t want that pro-slavery bastion of anti-Mexican sentiment to be ignored by an anti-slavery president coming after him. He committed actual acts of genocide, and I mean he was personally there, a lot, killing people. And then, as if to just add a little dash of irony, he didn’t want America to have banks or banknotes.
Why the fuck is this guy the special exception!?
I mean, set aside that the guy was a total raging asshole, then set aside that he was a complete fucking monster, and then set aside that he didn’t believe in money, you have to be able to value other stuff this guy did a lot more than things like not-murder, not-slavery and not-random-acts-of-pointless-violence. And that, right there, is kind of the problem with all these money people.
For the most part, these guys are notably, historically, for their part in creating America, or, more specifically, creating American government. Government that, again, see back up the top of the document, is at the very least, a little bit crap. And the reverse faces are all… monuments to, or instances of government. The lesson then, in the simplest possible way, is that the US Government wants Americans to think of the most artistically relevant part of their lives as, well, the US Government, but the US Government as expressed and represented by the historical context of old white slave owners signing documents and huffing about not paying taxes that they, themselves, were responsible for incurring.
But you know what else is interesting in this? The money, in its basic template, has been the same since 1914. The money is designed to evoke a timelessness, an aesthetic of ages and represent things that also do not change. So you have this common artwork that holds fast to history, if you can ignore all the ugly bits of history, and then emphasise them as important in their shaping of the aforementioned slightly crap system…
And then consider how Americans are resistant to systemic change.Consider how every American, every day, looks at art they are told is important, they associate with importance, and with living, that is of old dead men focused around one narrow window of time, doing one narrow band of things, and … okay, one total fucking maniac in the form of Jackson. You even have an example of change in the notes – Lincoln and Grant! They had a civil war, and that’s what it took to free slaves, because this country is that resistant to change, jesus christ.
What I’m saying is: Art of a culture reinforces and influences that culture’s attitudes, and America’s most common art is about how America, as it is, is totally fine, and stop complaining or trying to fix anything created by these divine flawless old guys.
you’re thinking about adding Harriett Tubman to a note. On the obverse of an Andrew Jackson note, possibly? Because man, that’s not awkward – a man who murdered people for fucking fun as opposed to one of the great icons of humanitarian risk? A man who hated how people made a big deal about his pro-slavery views on the other side of a note to a woman who was a former slave?!
What the hell?!
It’s nice to put Harriett Tubman on a note. It’d be good too, to strip off the people who wrote about ‘all men created equal’ while they were treating women and black people like awfulness. But that’s the real gist of it: This is nice. There’s more to do. There’s a lot more. A lot better.
Also, there’s the possibility you don’t want anything to do with money and you find the idea of putting art of Hariett Tubman in every pocket across America as gross or vile because it’s part of capitalism. I’m not about to say that being against money is a bad thing, but I do feel like at least, right now, it is a part of art and culture.
Hey, you know this phrase that gets language nerds kinda mad?
“I Could Care Less.”
I really dig it.
I know! I’m not meant to! It’s American and Wrong! It implies that you still care a little bit, and therefore, it doesn’t convey what the right phrase, I Couldn’t Care Less conveys! And that’s wrong! Clearly you mean to convey that you couldn’t care less when you say you could care less, right?
See, for me, the joy of I Could Care Less is that there’s a threat in it. It’s a response to when you’re engaged with a thing at a very minimal level, but if someone really wants to push your enthusiasm, it’s going to go away rather than grow. The implication is You could make me care less. It’s a different phrase for a different time. I couldn’t care less is definitive. I could care less has potential. I mean, it clearly indicates there’s some small space between ‘not caring’ and where you are, because you wouldn’t define how little you could care if the amount you cared was obvious.
Some people get really mad because they see only one way I could be meaning what I say. The gift of idiom is to ignore what is said, and I suppose nitpicking idiom is the way to pick on the things someone didn’t even say. It doesn’t bug me too much when people make jokes about this, I suppose. I mean
Yesterday, editing the podcast, I caught myself saying five-man dungeon. It’s a common phrase, used in World of Warcraft discussion. It grows from a common phrase for crewing things – man the cannons – and basically it means the same thing as five person dungeon.
I thought about this turn of phrase, as yet another little bit of everyday sexism that’s worn into my mind, and where the alternative isn’t just unfamiliar, it’s linguistically kinda worse. Without trying to sound like a whiner on this, five-person and five-man are two terms that have distinctly different flows; the consonant stop in the middle is a distinct thing and it shapes the term differently. This isn’t to say I want to keep using five-man – I corrected myself both times.
I also kept in that I made the mistake.
There’s a strangeness that comes from hearing yourself, played back, regularly. My podcasting compatriots don’t hear it, unedited, the same way I do. They don’t hear the raw audio, over and over again. I’m not responsible for anyone else’s manner of speaking, but I am responsible for my own. My language is not just embedded with the signs of the typical intersectional overlay of kyriarchic bullshit that we all deal with but I have an extra bonus layer coming from my fundamentalist upbringing. Even the way I swear, explicitly a rebellion against that kind of thing, reflects that upbringing. I learned to write and read under an American regime, then had Australian corrections amend it in some superficial ways dating back from before modern spelling. I learned to spell ‘waggon’ and ‘gaol,’ words of no practical application in the modern day but as strange curiosities.
I feel a need to be honest about these mistakes. I mess up. There are others I don’t catch. Editing audio – especially hours and hours of it – is really hard. There’s stuff that slips through. Sometimes, hugely embarassingly, sometimes not.
Lemme tell you about socialised speech.
You learn a lot of how you talk from the things around you. A lot of kids learn slang and shorthand from one another. Swears and other language, things that have meaning that they share with one another. I didn’t have many friends – I very rarely ‘socialised’ with other kids. Not just awkwardness, but also the divides and factionalism in our church, and the, you know, violence. Common public media wasn’t okay either – and any words that were ‘wrong’ were met with a pretty consistant punishment.
I remember reading Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and seeing Zaphod Beeblebrox use the word ‘photons’ as a swear. He used it like the word ‘heck’ or ‘dang.’ It was a good word, it had that nice ‘t’ in the middle and it wasn’t a word, as far as I could tell, that was rude at all. It had something to do with laser guns, I think? And so I used ‘photons’ when I was hurt, when I was frustrated, when I fell off things or when I touched my chest and felt the bruise spreading. “Ah, photons.”
Then one day, my dad grabbed me, by the side of the head, and yanked me out of the flow of traffic. He looked me, very seriously in the eyes, and told me to stop saying that.
“Is it a rude word?” I asked, terrified. Had I been doing A Wrong?
“You know what you really mean,” he growled, and that was all the explanation I got.
I was lost. I was confused. That… what did I reall mean? Was Photons a dirty word in another language? Was it in the Bible somewhere? This prompted a little research project that took me six months before I finally gave up. The guilt of the action wracked me.
Another source of my language flowed from the god-awful media I had access to. There were these strange 1970s nostalgia pieces my dad and mum kept, the videogames that slid in, but ultimately, what I read and saw was from that particular Christian media bubble. I read a lot of fundamentalist Christian literature, and the ‘cool’ edge of that (trust me, you’ve no idea). Narnia, But Written In 1990 America To A Word Count.
One of the hallmarks in that kind of story of the protagonists? The character you were meant to emulate?
He called people sir.
Oh, he called women ma’am, too, that was definitely part of it, but the sir thing stood out. When I left that media bubble and called teachers sir they looked at me confused. When I called strangers sir on the street, they gave me the same look. When I called a woman a few years older than me ma’am, I got a filthy look.
As a teenager, it was weird. As a young adult working service industries and low-skill jobs, it was old-fashioned. Now, in my life, a ‘sir’ at the wrong time can be an act of violence.
This is scored in deep on my mind. This is etched in my brain. It leaps out of my mouth barely passing my conscious mind, and not doing so sets me on edge because those terms are tied to respect in my life, they are tied to politeness and in refusing to do them, I am in some way, preparing a defensive or offensive posture. They are words meant to reassure that have stopped working, but my urge to be kind, my want to be nice to be people tries to re-apply these broken tools.
I’ve taken to using ‘y’all’ a lot. It has the nice side effect of also being a word that can be used to obliterate ‘you guys’ or ‘guys.’ That sort of substition is something my brain can handle. When the ma’am comes up I can replace it with y’all – “How are y’all” somehow sits right in place of “How are you, ma’am?” Of course, now, I’ve traded the chance of upsetting strangers and misgendering people for instead, a familiar conversation with people who want to know why I’m using it. It inevitably results in someone cleverly pointing out that they are not multiple people. My efforts to expunge harm have instead exposed me to pedantry, and boy hoy howdy do I love me some pedantry. The concern about it usually comes from people who only deal with me in text, and what’s weird there is it’s not like any of them have any idea how I do talk, or how I should talk.
That in particular is weird, because I don’t talk like an Australian.
I mean I barely ever say the word ‘c*nt.’
I think about this sort of problem a lot. And I think any time someone retweets or shares a tumblr post that ends with “THIS ISN’T HARD PEOPLE.”
Reviewing my degree so far, one idea that’s come up and I thought was very interesting was the idea of media capitals, specifically the idea of places that create media as existing in middle spaces. Continue reading →
The question ‘are videogames art’ is a wonderful question because it lets you see who isn’t actually very well informed about what art is or maybe what videogames are. It’s the kind of question that derives from gallery culture – ‘it’s nice, but is it art‘ – that is explicitly meant to be a parody of things that don’t really happen much. It’s a joke about pretentious dipshits which is, itself, being taken seriously when it’s moved out of the fora of conventional artworks to the perspective of videogames.
It’s okay! Most of the people writing about this didn’t study art. Most of them are just … well, videogame players, and it seems that statistically, that’s not a perspective that brought to bear on a lot of conventionally-viewed-as-art. It’s why we keep talking about the Citizen Kane of videogames, because holy crap, you’ve heard of Citizen Kane? You must be a fancy sort of person type!
Look, art is not some arbitary threshold of meaning. Art is a composition, it is a component of things. Some art objects are made up of ‘mostly art.’ Some art objects are really only there to BE art, and those artworks are what a lot of us conventionally view as art. The idea that the sketchpad scribblings of a tumblr artist can be art but somehow the vast vistas of Dark Souls can’t be because one of them is designed to serve some form of a purpose, designed to be part of something else, is weird.
It’s a bit like saying because the Mona Lisa was a comissioned artwork it doesn’t really count as art, because it was made for a purpose.
It’s a charming little question, where one of my teachers summarised the conversation – on an academic level – thus:
“Are videogames art? Yes, now fuck off.”
It’s not a meaningful question, not a meaningful conversation, if you’ve actually had any acquaintance with the breadth of design and art. It’s a dismissable idea.
And now, videogame journalists – who I am sure are all lovely people, except those who are total toolbags – are going to circulate around thinkpieces and maybe some of them will bust out some first-level google scholar citations or maybe reference that thing they’re pretty sure they read that one time.
In the mean time, developers and creators will continue making art. Some of it won’t be particularly smart or good art. Some of it will be about expressing small, silly ideas. Some of it will just be aping other, earlier forms of art, things they’re familiar with, things they’ve wanted to do for a good long time but never really got around to doing.
We must unshackle our thinking from the notion that art means good art. That art is a term of quality and not a term referring to general traits.
Art is scattered throughout most of our creations. There are always parts of human designs that have, to some extent, an element that references our desire to express an idea or a creative position. You can think of art as glitter – it’s everywhere, it gets everywhere, and sometimes even if there’s only a little bit of it on a thing, you’ll still notice it, even unconsciously. Some objects are made of a lot of art, and some are made of almost none.
The space where we make choices in creation that lays between art and design is a curious one. After all, design is usually crafted with a tangible aim – “we want this object to do this.” – but art is somehow perceived as having intangible aims – “we want this object to make people feel this.”
I’ve written about videogame art before, of course. I’ve talked about how videogames are all art, and some of them are just crappy art. Some of them are just big art, too – the notion that videogame artwork is just an accidental structure of a scale we’re simply unused to. It’s interesting too, because it’s not like literally every single second of a movie has to be of such quality that it carries the entire piece – well, I mean, there’s some Kubrickian style scholars who may disagree.
But videogame art, at its core, is the art we have put in videogames, because we can’t help it.
All videogames are art, it’s just some of them aren’t very good art. Some of them don’t express very interesting ideas. Some of them are a bit silly. Some of them only want to express ideas like ‘I love this thing’ or ‘I don’t want to think about my life’ and that’s entirely okay.
Art is a sanctuary from the demands of an unscrupulous reality, not some arbitary threshold of acceptable ways to spend your time.
What follows below is some text I submitted to one of my classes which I’m kinda thinking about a lot. So hey, if you find it here, Automated Grading software system, let me know.
Japanese media that we mostly experience is very genre, which I refer to in class as being unscrutinised. Broadly speaking genre media isn’t being made for mass-market appeal, but more niche, which means that their creation is more a matter of, for lack of a better phrase, filling in the blanks. In the west, some of our great genre media industries is the realm of the Erotic Novel For Women – the Mills & Boon archetype, where the quality of any individual piece isn’t really regarded at all, as long as the work hits a certain number of targeted goals. Is the central woman bosomy and relateable? Is the hunky man she’s going to smooch adequately mysterious and brooding? Are there three or four sex scenes in an exotic location? Okay, we’re done.
This style of genre structure follows in a lot of anime and manga and videogame media, where it doesn’t matter so much about what characters do or say as long as they hit some well-established beats of story. This means that genre, in Japanese culture, has a wealthy sort of ‘concept language.’ Characters translate reasonably well into totally different forms because the archetypes themselves are structurally components of the character. A tsundere character is not seen as boring or cliché, because the point of the character is to fulfil some element of that archetype, or to defy it.
This is, to me, super interesting because it implies a sort of inherent media discourse. The idea of character archetypes has a language in this genre media – and it informs the way that media is then made.