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Computer games, hauntology and what we build

13-05-2019

Everyone's favourite computer gaming showman, Jim Sterling, released a video covering Square Enix's recent teaser for the remake of Final Fantasy VII. The Benjamin of old would love to see a remake, but as I've gotten older and wiser, I've begun to despise these remakes and reboots. This sort of thing seems like a common trend - a trend that goes deeper than you might think, with big repercussions for not only the things we build, but the culture we live in.

The gaming industry is moving towards micro-payments, online subscriptions, loot boxes and a lack of imagination. Critics and gamers alike are lashing out at current state of gaming. Problems with crunch, companies avoiding taxes and firing their workers - all for games that are mostly skinner boxes attempting to grab as much money from you as possible, harking back to older times. Things you once liked being brought back purely for brand recognition. This has caused some very vocal reactions in both nasty and nice quarters of the internet. But does this point to something bigger? I think it does.

Living in the darkest timeline

There is something a bit odd with culture at the moment, specifically western culture (as I and a few others see it). The cultural artifacts we are making are set to a standardised plan where profit is the overriding goal. This idea can be easily seen in Hollywood movies - one such example is the Emoji film. No-one asked for that, no-one expected it to be good but there it is. It's full of product placement and is written to appeal to lowest common denominator. It's not demanding. It's dumbed down. Why? Because we are all coming back from a long, mechanised day of work that it's perhaps the only sort of entertainment we can cope with?

The philosopher Theodor Adorno has written a lot about this sort of thing. The Youtube Channel Cuck Philosophy has made several excellent videos on this topic. One of his videos describes Baudrillard's idea of sign-value. I'm not very familiar but I believe the idea is that the value of things revolves around their sign, their appearance and how that sign relates to other signs. When I think about movies and TV, I keep thinking about references and how they are used, such as in reference humour. Looking at the Avengers movies we always get that little teaser after the credits, probably hinting of another character from a comic you may have read, making an appearance in the next movie. Think about all the times we hear reference humour in media. Where does that come from? You'll love Avengers 23! It's got that one guy you love in it! Remember him? Course you do! We hinted at it in Avengers 14.

But lets get back to games. I used to be a massive Fallout fan. Fallout 1 and 2 were brilliant games. Fallout 3 was a big step change and critically made-sense from a capitalist point of view, but the game was nowhere near as good as the previous two. If what you were after was a deeper, more fulfilling experience, you weren't going to get it in the new 3D world. H.Bomberguy has a really good video on why he believes Fallout3 is Garbage. I happen to agree, but it was only the beginning. Fallout 4 introduces crafting mechanics (a common trope in AAA games these days) and dumbs down the conversation system even more. The less said about Fallout76 the better. What is Fallout now but a sad reference joke? The only reason the later Fallouts sold at all was because they use the iconography we are familiar with. The essence of the games has been lost. It has been standardised.

Perhaps the very best, or more accurately, sinister example of extracting money for sign value is Fortnite. Folding Ideas (another YouTuber - there are a lot of these folks in this post) made an excellent critique of this game. If you want to express yourself in Fortnite, you need to pay, either in real money or time. Spend ages grinding in order to get that skin you want, or pay some in-game cash just so you can get a special emote. Fortnite isn't really a game - it's a storefront.

A lot of media, games included, tend to be marketted with slogans like 'play it your way' or 'forge your own path'. The irony is that in appealing to the broadest player base - trying to say something to everyone - results in saying nothing of meaning at all. Standardising.

Hauntology

So far, so problematic right? Well, there is one last twist in this tale and it involves a cancelled future. Let's talk about Hauntology.

The late Mark Fisher seems to have popularised the term. I'd describe it as 'the future has been cancelled and so we look to the past to see how we used to imagine the future'. Sounds odd right? Well Mark Fisher once described it like this: He talks about a young student who said she wondered what it must have been like to write a letter, and wouldn't that be nice. He says that this young lady never lived in a time where letter writing (or even land-line phones) was the only way to communicate with people long distance. Yet, she has nostalgia for it.

Both Cuck Philosophy and the BBC Ideas program have really good descriptions of hauntology. It's one of these ideas that once you get into it, you can see it everywhere. Cuck Philosophy talks a lot about the Eighties-Revival that is going on at the moment. Think about the book and movie Ready Player One. When you think about it, the VR in that film is amazing! However, what do we see? A looking back to older times. A Delorian, the Shining Movie and Godzilla. Amazing technology (both in the fiction and in the film's creation) used to hark back to a time when many of the folks watching the film hadn't been born.

Let's look at a different medium - music. I've heard folks say things like 'modern music is dumbed down'. Mark Fisher is very critical of modern music, believing there is no pop music now that couldn't exist in the eighties or nineties. One new genre of music actually runs with this idea. Vaporwave has been referred to as 'explicitally hauntological'. You can find Vaporwave in other forms of art, such as Dan Bell's Forgotten Malls project, or the computer game Broken Reality. The more you look, the more you can see this nostaligia breaking through.

How does hauntology relate to the state of current triple-A gaming today? Well, we keep seeing the same things coming out again and again. We see references and callbacks to things of the past, never using the past to create a new future but relying on the familiar, the sign-value. In doing so, we end up stuck.

The future has been cancelled

Why I didn't make Cybar T-Shirts

So why am I writing about all this? These are big ideas with a lot of written work and study to go through (which I've barely scratched the surface of). I think these of us who work closely with technology, science and art need to have a really good think about what we are building and why. Let me give you a personal example.

Last year I helped build the Cybar at EMF camp 2018. I worked on the design elements mostly and I wanted to cheekily provoke ideas and thought around corporatism and the evils of technology in the service of capitalism. We drew heavily from Cyberpunk. But after the event, something happened and it really threw me...

...people wanted t-shirts.

Sounds fine right? I almost set up a shop to sell Polybius Biotech t-shirts (the fictional company I invented for the Cybar), but then stopped, as I quickly began to abhor the idea! I'd fallen into the trap I absolutely wanted to avoid! I was about to become part of everything I've just written about in this blog post. I'd set out to do one thing, but ended up doing the opposite. I'd set out to critique capitalism and evil-corp(tm) but instead I was doing exactly what they do - monetizing symbols. I felt genuinely frightened - what had I done?!

We were already onto a loser in this regard though. Cyberpunk was, at one time, a counter culture. Like punk-music before it, cyberpunk is in opposition to the mainstream - to capitalism - and is explicitly political. Its protagonists are often outsiders - hackers, criminals or these that society has turned it's back on. Cyberpunk was taken seriously by academics as a way of thinking about a new future - Cyberfeminism for example, is a serious academic subject and movement.

But cyberpunk failed. Like many areas of the political left, it retreated into smaller and smaller enclaves. Today, all we have left of Cyberpunk is the 'look', the aesthetic. That's exactly what we drew on for the Cybar and although people loved it, we were simply doing what has been done before - longing for a forgotten future. We could have had flying cars - we got 140 characters (well maybe a few more now but you know what I mean).

Where do we go from here?

All sounds pretty depressing doesn't it? There is one ray of hope though. The artists of today have their work cut out for them. But there are so many amazing technologies out there we can draw from. We need some time and space to imagine. The sooner we move away from this late-stage-capitalism, this neoliberal nightmare we find ourselves in, the sooner we can build the future we have so far been denied.

When it comes to gaming in particular, I'm seeing a lot of promising things on the horizon. The indie-game scene is creating an awful lot of good stuff. There are moves to unionize within the triple-A gaming industry and the Victoria and Albert Museum's recent exhibition on gaming features a very prominent section on punk game development.

More generally, I'd suggest folks consider their work within this framework. Is a project simply rehashing the past, or are we looking forward? Do the things we make have real value, or is it just signaling? Do you need to make something that appeals to everyone? Do you need to let the player or participant have it all their way, or do you have a compelling journey you want to take people on?

I don't have the answers yet. I've been giving this a lot of thought but it's a really big area, and quite a serious one (I haven't even mentioned Adam Curtis until just now!). If I find out the solution I'll be sure to shout it far and wide.


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