Friday, June 20, 2014

Indie Entitlement

while sitting in a decommissioned airplane in the middle of the Mojave desert in his film A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek paraphrases German philosopher Walter Benjamin by saying that, as humans, we don't understand a culture when we're in the thick of it. only when we're made to see the waste, or the leftovers of a particular culture, do we get an intuition of what culture is about. Indie Game: The Movie is the waste of a culture - and it would be easy just to leave its world and its narratives behind. but i think it's more important than ever to go back and look at it in a slightly different, hopefully wiser light. it may seem presumptuous to be giving a post-mortem to something still so new, yet i believe it's fully appropriate for a culture that has moved and evolved so quickly.

about two years ago, this film - a documentary called Indie Game: The Movie was released - a movie that purported to humanize game-making by profiling a few creators' struggles making their games. two years later, its lasting impact can be best summarized by this tweet:

IG:TM was originally supposed to follow the indie scene at large as it was developing, between 2008-2010 - the culture of game jams and the IGF - but it ended up settling on a few stories for the sake of stronger storytelling. it kept the moniker Indie Game: The Movie in the transition from profiling the scene as a whole to a few subjects, despite following three of the most obviously high-profile games at the time. in my review from 2012 i made the point that by calling their film "Indie Game: The Movie" and then only following the most high-profile stories, the filmmakers were erasing the biggest swath of the truly interesting, risky stuff getting made in the independent game world. i'm not going to chalk this up to ignorance on their part - it was 100% a conscious choice of the filmmakers to follow the games with the highest commercial stakes, and it does a lot to give watching the movie a feeling like it's peddling "indie" success narratives.

as a story, and as a little capsule of cultural tourism, IG:TM provided a human enough portrait to get viewers who might otherwise think of game makers as Mountain Dew-swilling, Call of Duty playing manchildren to perhaps reconsider that image and see games as something that 'real people' make. most reviews at the time focused on this point, which is maybe is a testament to just how regressive image the games and nerd culture has in the larger cultural consciousness. for those involved in making games, it probably felt good to have their passions be legitimized by a very professional-looking production. more than a surface look at the film, however, leaves us with a bland, toothless, glorified advertisement that panders to both its audience and its subjects.

i would say Indie Game: The Movie was the final nail in the coffin that destroyed "indie". but on the ground level, the community has only continued to grow enormously since the time it came out. the only difference is that the stakes are higher now and there are more developers, more of whom are quickly finding that they're part of a much different world than the one described in Indie Game: The Movie. if "indie" has died, in its wake is the slow birth of videogames' conscience. and it's more apparent than ever that there are many people who are not recognized - because they're women, or people of color, or queer, or non-American, or don't know how to exploit marketing language and the culture of the IGF in the way successful indies have, or because the market is oversaturated. the indie game boom was no less reflection of the tech/start-up world's cocky white dude-exclusivity five years ago as it is now, it's just that there are more conflicting voices now to cast more shadows over the previous narratives. Indie Game: The Movie was always about "white dudes remaking Mario" (to quote Anna Anthropy), and it was always parroting a false narrative of success, the only difference is its become all the more obvious now by what's come after.

maybe that also explains why all of its subjects have since seemed to develop a more troubled and cantankerous relationship with the limelight and participation in the indie game world as a whole. Indie Game: The Movie created false expectations for success in many young viewers' minds, and ended up leaving its unwitting subjects looking ungrateful for not greeting that newfound fame and success with open arms. you will never see Jon Blow or Edmund McMillen or Phil Fish openly talking to fans or acquaintances at videogame conferences (if you see them all) like you might have seen at some point before. they're aware of all the resentment placed on them for the ones being profiled, and their walls are up much higher. they seem deeply uncomfortable with the social effect participating in the movie has had on their lives and how they're perceived in the indie world. this is becoming a common trend with newly successful young male game makers who don't have the mental or emotional capacity to handle all the sudden money and fame from having a commercially successful game.

these lingering sour feelings after IG:TM's success recently popped up again in a video on youtube which purports to undergo a deep cultural analysis of "indie celebrity" titled "This Is Phil Fish". among the points made in the video is that Phil's behavior didn't change from being a poster on the tigsource forums when Fez began development to when it became popular, but his level of exposure did. because of his cockiness, and the seeming disproportionate level of focus on his project with a catchy technical gimmick and flashy pixel art, "we" made our image of him into an annoying entitled brat through our own preconceptions, and the expectations for celebrities and their behavior. if Phil had stayed a bro who stayed inside the lines of acceptable behavior, he'd probably be worshiped as an indie hero (maybe more like Edmund McMillen). instead, people see him as a spoiled, pretentious jerk and left him death threats when he decided to cancel Fez 2. the video attempts to provide a complex portrait of internet "indie" celebrity through his situation, but inevitably paints Phil as a hapless, naive victim who was unwittingly thrust into this role of celebrity without his consent. it says that we put him there because he seemed to perfectly embody the type of ugly entitlement we don't like to see made visible.

this analysis is interesting, and i can't lie and say that under the hatred of Fish isn't some of the rabid xenophobia and anti-intellectualism that sits deep in the heart of fan culture. but the video also makes some serious presumptions. first of all, we don't know how much of willing participant Fish was or wasn't in courting this role of "indie celebrity". celebrity is often thrust on people, but that doesn't also mean that they don't also court it. the only person who knows what was going on in Phil's head is Phil, and i'm not really interested in speculating either way, particularly because it seems to be participating in the same kind of martyring process the video is attempting to critique. besides, i've heard enough that isn't public knowledge to not think very fondly of Fish's behavior for multiple reasons. but even that isn't important beyond the individuals involved, which is why i'm not even particularly interested in using him as the subject for this detailed analysis. there are several other people who are way more unjustly demonized, namely Anita fucking Sarkeesian, for one.

game developers come from nerd culture, often growing up seeing themselves as losers and outsiders. because they're afraid of being undesirable grotesque manchildren media has made them fear they are, they continue to believe themselves to be the victims. this fear blinds them into adulthood from seeing their newfound privilege and when and how they're participating as a part of the established dominant culture. in 2013, Hotline Miami developer Cactus told me to give him a blowjob when i (quite sincerely) asked him if he wanted a hug because he was upset he didn't win at IGF 2013. he said he thought he was going to win the Grand Prize "just like Fez", which won the year before. he later apologized to me in an email after i tweeted what he said publicly, and said he was upset at me for the tone in a review i wrote of his game (despite that we had had a very civil email exchange about the review before i met him at the IGF) and that he was very drunk and having a bad week. i more or less dropped it after he apologized, but still keep coming back to the level of entitlement in his behavior. i believe he felt he was owed the award because of HLM's commercial success, and because of his ubiquity for several years in the indie scene. HLM was a resounding success, yet he acted like i had overstepped some serious boundary for writing one negative review. and i just still can't wrap my fucking head around that.

just the same, this situation leads me to believe Phil also thought he was entitled to the 2012 IGF grand prize, because he believed in the narrative that was being painted for him. and when there was backlash when he won, he very much tried everything he could paint himself as a victim in the midst of this instead of trying to reach some awareness about what was happening or why other people were upset. an analysis is only so true as the agenda you enter into it with. he might have been an unwitting participant in his own demonization, but that doesn't mean he didn't come into it with a great deal of entitlement. yes, there is a certain kind of pomposity and grandiosity to his manner which often gets read as "pretentious" and pushes the xenophobic anti-intellectual gamer contingent's buttons super hard down to 'attack dog' mode. when this happens, it can seem weird and arbitrary and not fair. but they are also responding to a kind of entitlement that is, at the end of the day, very real.

maybe people view "indie" as entitled because it is entitled?

"This Is Phil Fish", in its inert, smug navel-gazing, merely reflects back the entitlement of the indie world. in the end it offers no particularly controversial or new insights about celebrity culture, but creates a sense of being a relevant and no-holds-barred commentary to those who are intimately aware of the subject matter. it attempts to exonerate Phil Fish to a lot of the young white dudes who are involved in the indie game community and probably want to identify with Fish. they see his case as "fascinating" and are much more ready and willing to accept that they might have made a snap judgment when they can see their subject as just a misunderstood one of their own. maybe they even want to fantasize about themselves as a rich and famous white dude game dev that people talk about, even if an infamous one. just the same, they are much more willing to relate themselves to a person like Cactus when he makes a poor lapse in judgment, because he is one them. but this sudden well of empathy seems to dry up once it's applied to an outsider like Sarkeesian.

in a sphere of entitlement, people involved are not able to see how their actions reflect their privilege or adds to the oppression of the dominant culture around them, and only take criticisms to their behaviors as bitterness or personal attacks. the indie community is a serious cross-section of haves and have nots, and what discussions are and aren't happening in the open often reflects this. 

in general, the way a discussion is framed - and especially what doesn't get talked about openly in the major public sphere reflects the values our culture. outcry about the lack of women at the recent E3 from sites like Polygon appear to be a clear sign of progress in a historically extremely retrogressive industry, but leave behind a lot in their discussion. while more diversity is obviously a good thing, it's a very small victory when the industry as a whole relies on rapid turnover to keep itself going, and generally is known for bad ethical decisions, both in how employees are often treated and in the lowest common denominator content of games they make. if the industry can't even bother to treat any of its workers well, why would more women and queer people and people of color want to enter it? when most AAA games reflect hyper-imperialist values, why would more marginalized people want representation in them?

in indie games, even what's seen as an "experimental" game also reflects a huge gap between what's actually happening and what's being openly recognized by the culture at large. Aevee Bee and Lana Polansky made the point on a IndiE3 panel about experimental games this past weekend that a lot of smaller-scale experimental game developers either don't have the resources, don't have the ability, or don't have the desire to exploit the kind of marketing tools necessary to sell their games to a wider audience of gamers. a lot of them, therefore, get thrown under the bus and erased by narratives of what's happening in a larger indie culture that's looking more for the more glamorized Indie Game: The Movie-style games. this has absolutely nothing to do with whether what smaller-scale devs make is somehow more or less interesting idea-wise at all, just that it's less marketable.

and in a time where there are more women and people of color making games than ever, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this past March had a total of 1 woman (Auriea Harvey from Tale of Tales) and a vast majority of white people (a notable exception being Mahdi Bahrami, an Iranian developer who was a hold-over from a previous year's submission because of visa issues and, again, Auriea Harvey). this is out of a speaker list of over 20 people. a vast majority of the games either relied on some sort of simple technological "hook" or more larger-scale complicated technical systems. somehow, Harmonix and Double Fine were part of the panel. the smaller scale experimental "narrative" games like Passage or Gravitation mentioned as a signpost on the EGW submission form seem to have been slowly phased out and replaced by a place to start the hype machine on the next sexy, marketable gimmick. this cult of marketability defines the EGW now, and makes it seem a lot more like the breeding ground for The Next Braid than any relevant cross-section of experimental games.

i guess you could say the business focus is no big surprise, as the EGW is held at one of world's biggest videogame business conferences. but then why choose to get upset at AAA's lack of representation and not upset at the lack of representation in experimental games? shouldn't recognition of marginalized ideas and concepts be what experimental gameplay is about? isn't it even vastly more important that marginalized devs who have way less opportunities for exposure be recognized? shouldn't we be holding Robin Hunicke, the organizer, accountable for this stuff, and not give her a pass just because she's a woman?

the point is, there are implicit agendas in place behind what things are and aren't openly criticized. those agendas often aren't consciously being enacted, but their being unconscious makes their effects no less real or serious. and a lot of what gets unsaid reflects a culture defined by privilege-blindness. making these criticisms openly is the sign of a community with a healthy panoply of voices. and yet i see a troubling lack of people on the inside who are any willing to undertake any kind of criticism of them. people continually call for diversity and then continually stop listening when diverse voices start speaking. either you speak out and get ignored or become silent and be part of the establishment. when i've heard from so many people participating in the indie game world who have misgivings and come to me and tell me how much they are deathly afraid to talk openly about their misgivings without seriously hurting a friend's feelings and losing a friendship or that saying the wrong thing that will ruin their career, then that's a pretty clear sign there is a stagnant culture. fear of losing friendships and social support is without a doubt the strongest and most effective motivator for maintaining the status quo. all of this make the "indie" world a place rife with paranoia and insecurity, one often masked by an awkward gushing surface congeniality.

the bottom of indie culture seems like it's bound to drop out any time soon, it's just a matter of when and how hard. and when it does, who will be there to build something more durable?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Evil Was Born

|||.......a little boy went out to play. when he opened his door, he saw the world. as he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. evil was born. evil was born, and followed the boy.......|||

let's talk about a videogame called Zelda...

sometimes, you'll find yourself in a small village. as you exit the village, the sun sets and a wolf howls in the distance.

soon, the bubbly theme music is gone. there is only quiet, and the quiet leaves a night filled with danger. there's a plague on the land. evil lingers there, and its creatures will turn suddenly into crazed, bloodthirsty monsters. their souls are possessed by a deeper, darker force. the sword must be used, but the sword doesn't solve the problem, merely lets you navigate through it for a little longer. the evil is beyond any one creature's will. the evil is some kind of disembodied force, much larger than the bad guy. it's built into the program.

then the tinkling theme of the sun song starts hesitantly, and the darkness recedes as quickly as it began, retreating back into the shadows for now. the land is slowly begins its cycle anew once more. another day. hope and happiness. and then you wander through the fields and into a bubbling town, with all kinds of irritating noises and people chatting. the people are weird grotesque lego creatures and you don't really understand what they're on about all the time, but you still appreciate them for what they are. but then, exit the town and you find a temple sits above it all, knowingly. the serenity of the temple sits in dark contrast to the town just one screen over. it's the true source beyond the bustling. it shrouds the land in mystery. the temple is the fourth wall - it's the guiding spirit that leads you through the game. the temple is the home of the game designer.

the land is sick. you're not sure what kind of illness. but you can feel it lingering. you know that soon time will run its cruel machinery over the landscape until it's tilled bone dry. you know the bustling masks suffering. you know evil will overtake the land. it's already fated to happen.

there are some spiritual guardians (mostly women) who see it too, and they want to help you. some of them are more consciously aware of it than others. their spirit of generosity is infinite, but they lack the power to deal with the kind of evil that will soon ravage the land. their power is easily stomped over by this new kind of evil.

this evil - black magic. a mysterious, powerful new technology. industrialization. colonialism. a harmful, dispassionate occupying force. one which the constant fallout from is built into the fabric of Eastern culture. constantly living in the dark shadow of occupation.

to restore the land, you must fully understand the land. to understand the land, you must become a scientist. you must feel the land's pain. you must feel what it is to be inside of a dying tree. you must feel what it's like to be inside the belly of a creature. all creatures have a temple inside of them, even if it's sometimes a really weird one.

and then, when you step through the door. when you remove your weapon and prove you're ready. when you're wandering the dangerous, merciless wasteland. you'll see the true form, the thingness of things. you'll see their deep sadness, and it will be overwhelming. but if you can fix your gaze longer, you'll see straight through their pain down into their biological inner-workings, and you can watch all the strange life that lives within them. and view their arcane scriptures, expressed in a way no human (or whatever you are) is meant to understand. you'll see the full scope of it all. and you'll need all kinds of new tools to comprehend it and penetrate through it.

and your shadow is born.


Link is a restless figure, one without parents. he's always very far away from home. his is a story of destiny, of endless searching, of finding a larger purpose. Link is mute, but we are meant to express our desires onto him. we want him to be somebody.

while Link's journey is fraught with danger, he's being heavily guided through it - by us, by the characters in the story (many of whom are women) who are protecting him, and by the designers. we want Link to succeed and not come to any serious harm. and so, if we're successful, he ultimately will.

the darkness. of breaking the landscape into easily parsed chunks. one part embodies one idea, another another one idea. enrich yourself with the knowledge gained from all of them until you're complete. your path is predetermined from the beginning. you know exactly what to expect, even when you don't. this is what we call The Hero's Journey, and its tendrils are covering every kind of mass entertainment imaginable - but especially videogames.

which begs the question - does Link save the land or is he only led to believe he saved the land, because that's what we want him to have done? did all those puzzles all meet their perfect solutions with all the tools he just happened to have found scattered about? were all those hookshot targets all conveniently placed so he could navigate easily over the deadly spike pits placed below? did he really understand what the hell was going on before marching into yet another race of creatures' holy temple with his sword unsheathed, looking for a fight? the game certainly gives us very little indication that he does.

it's okay. the settings are all just a playground for him. a sometimes dangerous playground, but one that is highly navigable. they ultimately lead us to feeling he's accomplished something deep and substantial - and that's because they're set up that way. the game is not about the world of Hyrule, the game is about Link, the Hero - and us. it's Link's world, made specifically for him to navigate through. it's not about some random bystander NPC who gets in the way. they're just a prop to his journey.

and so we see that Ganon is maybe not as much a shadow of Ganondorf, who is barely established in the story, as he is a shadow of Link.

by the end, the darkness has finally receded. we've become scientists and mastered all the elements of the land, and have used those abilities to vanquish the ultimate darkness. we're pretty fucking badass by this point and it seems like we must know how we got to be that way, but we really don't. we do know we've delivered the final blow. we've traveled through unendingly hostile systems of torture and suffering. we've fixed our eyes into them deeply, and it was terrifying, but we made our way through them bravely, albeit with many scars. and now the plague over the land is receding. and we should be overjoyed, but the sadness remains. and it is immense.

Link must return to childhood, back to innocence, to finish what he started. and so that's what we'll see, because that's what we want to see. but it's not true, because he can't anymore. the door has already been opened. his shadow is now already out wandering the countryside, looking for women to fuck. it can't be put back in anymore.

we've never moved out of childhood, yet we can't return.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Into (and Out Of) The Belly of the Beast

you know, i'm a strong woman. i'm realizing this more and more every day. i don't care what anyone else might have to say to me about it.

i'm a woman. whatever objective definition may or may not exist of that word doesn't matter at this point, because that's how i'm seen now. that's the role i embody. and i actually feel a lot more comfortable with it, as arbitrary as it might seem at times. and now i'm standing in the middle of a swanky apartment in SF holding a rum and coke in a room full of women (and some non-binary people) who work in the game industry or connected fields, wondering what the hell this is all about. i only got into this party because i was in the right place at the right time the night before - and the guy at the front didn't even see my name on the list, but he let me in anyway, saying "i'm just out here as a formality, honey" warmly and laughing. up until a couple years or so ago, i'd never felt like i'd been at the right place at the right time for anything.

i spend so much time and energy just trying to stay human, and yet i usually feel like the token alien lifeform in any given group of people. the whole week of GDC 2014 i'm occupied with thoughts of my impending homelessness at the end of the week. it seemed like a bit of a cruel joke, with more potential offers for money and work coming my way than ever before. everything was falling apart, but something new was also coming together. i feel so hopelessly inept at living my life in so many ways, yet so extremely confident in others. and now, suddenly i'm a part of a community. suddenly everyone seems really nice to me and tells me they respect my work. suddenly i feel much less guarded towards them, and, for the first time, believe they're being sincere. and yet i still don't know where i'm going to sleep at the end of the week.

i'm spending the week incessantly handing out my obnoxious business cards to everyone i meet, advertising my obnoxious game - the game no one's supposed to like. a game about upsetting shit a lot of people never want to think about. i was secretly hoping that i'd push some of them away or offend them. and nearly everyone is saying "wow, this is so cool!" i doubt they'd feel that way if they spent serious time actually playing the game, of course. just yesterday Cara Ellison told me "your games make me feel really bad" in (presumably) the most flattering way she could muster. it's a hard thing to hear from anyone, but it's what i've gotten used to hearing.

being a woman - defining and reevaluating myself as a woman, leaves me in uncertain territory. there are less examples for me to look to. buildings previously built up by all the things i've looked to in the past crumble, and now i see how flimsy they were in the first place. i struggle to feel i'm really occupying the same space as these women, but i'm definitely feeling a positive vibe i didn't expect to feel from them. maybe it's that women in games are so intensely targeted and marginalized, they couldn't help but emotionally support each other and try and birth something new and interesting. not that those women aren't often equally lethal towards each other - a reality i'd became increasingly acquainted with all too well in the past year. or maybe this is just how things really work in creative communities - that just because i'd never really heard many stories of women in male-dominated worlds didn't mean they hadn't existed all over the place.

presumably i'm some sort of Game Designer or Game Thinker or whatever, but i don't pretend like there isn't a lot i don't know about games. so i go to heavily praised talks like The Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC and i see boys with toys. i talk to highly educated, articulate academics who've spent their careers studying videogames and i see boys with toys. i see boys with toys everywhere. i see them skimming along the surface, endlessly posturing. and i just can't get myself to care. but a lot of people seem to love to throw money at them. so i guess i should care. a few of the younger men - ones i've met before who seemed nice enough, if naive, are being hit with walls of paranoia and depression from all the unexpected attention directed at them from their massive commercial successes. they don't seem particularly wise or powerful, they just seem like insecure young people. and there's nothing wrong with that. but because of that, they don't have psychological mechanisms for dealing with the increased scrutiny placed on them as newly successful 'indie game' celebrities. they seem guarded, and not in good emotional places despite their new-found wealth. meanwhile others who i might respect, who are used to relative marginalization or obscurity next to these celebrities shrug their shoulders and continue doing what they do. no amount of demographic breakdowns and marketing analysis can mask the fact that it's all so deeply arbitrary, and more people seem to be realizing it.

i don't have any respect for the videogame industry as an entity. i have no respect for its labor practices, nor its artistic aims, nor the imagery it worships, nor its treatment of women or other minorities, nor the parasitic relationship it has with its consumers. i think it's disgusting and abhorrent. so i can't say that i respect GDC, as a business conference that stands to represent the values of the videogame industry. nor do i support the IGF, in its endless hype and favoritism, nor in its aim to award 'indie' games with (for the most part) already the highest levels of cultural exposure. but individuals often start to change, even when the worlds they occupy remain as stubborn and stagnant as ever. i appreciate when Brandon Boyer says onstage in the IGF awards that he supports people involved in games fragmenting off and pushing in whatever directions they want to push in, even if he doesn't understand it. i appreciate it when i can have an honest conversation with a deeply professional woman who's spent much of her life in the game industry, even if she might not ever really understand what i'm trying to do with a thing like Problem Attic.

a small one-day conference called Critical Proximity, the day before GDC, mostly made up of young people, seems to be much more interesting and relevant than nearly anything at GDC - despite the appearance of a "videogame criticism" conference sounding like a comically narrow focus from the outside. there was a lot of talk about how to maintain supportive communities, yet in the final talk Ian Bogost (or "Old Man Bogost" as i've come to call him) still seemed intent on breaking up any kind of delusions of community love that might have been held over the course of the conference, or anything that distracts videogame critics from doing the thing videogame critics are presumably supposed to be doing. and fair enough - maybe there is no community. maybe we don't want community. others, like Samantha Allen, made this point too. maybe things will continue to shift and fall apart unpredictably. but even if there is no community, there is a lot of genuine sincerity, and genuine desire to support other people - and that's a thing that doesn't just materialize out of thin air.

then - walking into Moscone Center for the third year in a row, i knew enough to know what i was going to get this time around. i knew the way places like the Bay Area or LA or NYC like to mythologize themselves. i knew that the interesting stuff is most often happening outside of these events, and outside those cities. that is, unless maybe you're David Kanaga or Pippin Barr and you're doing genuinely exciting, genuinely cutting-edge experiments at the intersection of performance art and games. and then, a lot of people are probably either very confused by or very indifferent to you. or if your name is Tale of Tales, and your sustained visibility over the years hasn't done much of anything to move you out of a strange, liminal, heavily marginalized space between the overly stagnant, overly stuffy art world and the overly commercial, overly nasty game world.

i don't know what will happen with videogames in the next ten years. i don't know to be excited about what will happen in them or not. i almost don't care. so much ground is gained, so much ground is lost. so many things have been changing surprisingly quickly, so many stay the same and show no signs of ever being different. i still don't understand why people who make videogames need to separate themselves out from other creative communities creating other forms of digital media, and justify why videogames are more exceptional than them. nor do i understand why those other worlds continually seem to fail to seriously engage with videogames. either way, a lot of people who make videogames are certainly here, and certainly don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. and neither am i - nor am i homeless anymore, by the way. thank you, patreon!

i'm a woman and a human being who wants to make art. i never saw this as being particularly controversial. nor do i see my need to not limit myself to one medium as being particularly unusual, in an age of easy access to a plethora of different digital tools. and so i'm always shocked to see how much confusion seems to come from that. either i'm overextending myself, or i'm ruining my chance at a establishing a real career by going too far up my own ass. but here i am, still strong as ever. now able to pay rent. and i'm not changing, nor am i going anywhere. and whether or not my need to feel human makes me an alien to others, i'm happy to receive all the support and love i have from this community - strange as it may be, nonexistent as it may or may not be.

and so i say this sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: we might not always understand each other or be on the same page (or even in the same book!) as each other. i might find game culture endlessly infuriating and puzzling. but i know your support is genuine. and i'm really, really flattered. thank you so much, everyone. =)

Thursday, March 6, 2014


why does it always have to be about fucking videogames? why can't it be about art? or anything else?

here you are again. in this seat. neatly arranging and configuring all your pieces into one very particular, very precise setup. arranging your toy blocks in a discrete manner so that you're in the just right position to fall in the most catastrophic way possible. setting yourself up to fail as miserably as possible. then defining, redefining, and falling and failing once again. there - and then, at once, not there anymore. you once seemed like you owned this world, but now - go away. go home, you say. i don't want anyone to see me like this. OK, it's about art. see? that was easy. i don't care to map the inner workings of your head as a Videogame Person or a Whatever Person anymore, your silly head you haven't bothered much to peer inside, so colonized, so many tubes and wires feeding into it you won't ever acknowledge. you wince slightly in pain as you move your hand over to caress those tubes every day, unthinkingly, but you will never see them. you routinely extend no compassion but scream and cry at others to have it for you. you're here living out all your rage inside of boxes within boxes. Liked, Faved, and then forgotten. but the truth is that life isn't defined within these borders, not the screens nor the smaller screens within screens. there's never was anything on the screen anyway, you projected everything there. your projection, itself, reveals a depth of imagination you will likely never even approach acknowledging. it was there all along, except no one ever told you how to see it. and so, you obliged them.

now, here we go:

FUCK MARIO. fuck mickey mouse. fuck bugs bunny. fuck star wars.

analyze, interrogate. study with intently focused eyes at these pathways, these secret passages that map the inside of your head, your consciousness. study their contours. they seem to be infinite, to delight, to surprise, to be an endless joy. what is this joy? the joy of an experience? what is this "fun"? this fun allows you a freedom of some sort that you may have never been able to experience otherwise, and engages with it so thoughtfully and compassionately? this fun that manifests itself as an emotionally fraught, intense ride, yet also a somehow, surprisingly gentle one? this fun, -- and then the ride ends and then the bad guy dies. but who even cares about the bad guy, the bad guy was never there in the first place. who is that guy anyway? he's no one. just a dude who tries to steal credit for the ingenuity of these mazes he never had anything to do with in the first place. a pointless figurehead. a cardboard cut-out. he could have never come up with that himself. someone else must have had a hand in it all.

what is this "fun"? this fun allows you a freedom of some sort that you may have never had otherwise, and engages with it so thoughtfully and compassionately? this fun, --- and then it fucking pukes on your shirt and pisses on your shoe and slaps you in the face as it tells you to BUY MORE TO UNLOCK MORE ADVENTURES and to WATCH THIS TELEVISION SHOW SO THAT YOU CAN BE INVESTED IN THIS FICTIONAL CHARACTER'S FICTIONAL LIFE and EAT THIS CEREAL and ARE YOU PART OF THE SUPER CLUB? this fun, this fucking vampire. this threatened social ostracization. this beast. this inescapable viral infection. this fucking fantasy of life, this lie that no one could ever hope to live. this meme, this deferred pleasure. this compartmentalized joy. this ultimate laziness, this empty narcotic.

these pathways that ultimately lead on a circuitous path to nowhere. the end boss being nowhere. an insultingly anti-climactic, empty fart. an unceremonious dump-off point somewhere in the middle of nowhere. a rude awakening. these secrets that offer no way out, that tell you they know something when they really know nothing, that pretend to just want to hug you but don't, or won't, see that you're bleeding all over them.

and then the wound doesn't heal but somehow you're still here, walking around, for some reason you can't understand. so put on a suit and tie. go to a conference of "like-minded" individuals. revel in an invented past. shoot that shit. drink yourself to death. and then hysterically cry and moan when a little 8-bit bunny saunters across the television screen in front of you, in a magenta palette, doing a cute little 4-frame dance. he owns your past, not you. he is the monolith, the power. group therapy sessions are needed. more meds prescribed, meds sponsored by Nintendo, to help you through this difficult time. we're all here for you.

live your life inside the small, fenced-in with barbed wire chicken coop you've been placed in. stake your claim, and murder and scream for that one little mound of dirt inside the coop. dominate others, form factions. swing your dick around. survival of the fucking fittest, bro-dawg. all under the watchful, bemused eye of your farmers. but sometimes you even baffle them. sometimes they think you must be plotting to overthrow them - you must be! how could you not be! but even they will grow surprised, even disgusted to see you're just trying to kiss them. to lick them. to get to know them. even they won't understand how and why this has happened.

they have created a monster they don't know how to control anymore. they scramble and run around and check their charts, but can't come up with any kind of reasonable hypothesis. in your disgusting naivete, you might actually be onto something big, something scary. but that something only remains a possibility for a split second before you smash it helplessly into pieces. you can't help it. that glimmer is always beaten back into line by your programming. you're being farmed, not shown how to love. you can't escape your programming, silly. and so, live your life inside this pen and try not to do anything bad, sweetheart - if you can help it.

somewhere deep inside, travelling through those endless tunnels. those neural pathways. wandering through the mazes and puzzle worlds of your mind - there is a paradise. a heaven. a floating city. a mysterious gold palace. a sexy neon futurescape. a life on mars. a sun-soaked land with waterfalls and canyons and birds singing.

you spend your days building houses within houses to store all those pieces and parts you see of yourself and everyone around you. the houses are haphazard, and half-built, and improperly wired, and laying in strange positions on unstable land. but they're good enough, right, so that you can continue plotting and mapping some kind of impossible route - a route many others, in actuality, have already mapped - to that paradise. but you will never acknowledge that. you see this as a gold inside you, as something so pure and beautiful that no one will ever take from you. you will never wear it on the surface, but inside you're feverishly, desperately trying anything and everything to realize that fantasy, that Eden, running towards that horizon, towards that light at the end of the tunnel - but that land is only really there in your mind. it's only there playing on a screen inside the walls of a particular room on a particular floor of a particular apartment building, somewhere on the edge of a strange, faraway town. it's all been paved over now, and there are a million buildings just like it dotting the landscape. it's somewhere deep in the past.

but you don't seem to notice - nor do you care once it lands down in a very particular position, on one very particular plot of land, only seen and experienced in one very particular way, by very particular people. or that it's Faved, Liked, then forgotten. because, anyway, you still smile smugly at yourself. you know not-so-deep within yourself that you have that space colonized, that you really got one over on them. and they know it too. you are the master of that domain. you've escaped it all, and everything around you, you distilled in the best way possible. you're free. future generations will know you and sing your praises. you are standing atop of that little mound of dirt, and you will kill anyone who tries to take it from you now. don't fuck with me, bro, you say. i'll fuck you up. sunglasses on, cigar in mouth, rolling down the street in a limousine, uzi's blazing, while some girl in a bikini gives you head. you own the world - at least in that one moment.

and then, as you're drifting off into sleep on some cold and lonely night, as distant sirens wail and the homeless people outside your window hack and cough, and as the wind is howling (maybe not outside, but in your dream) and suddenly you're drifting into a confused, strange nightmare, you hear a voice appear in your ear that says "it's-a-me". and, for a second, you smile softly. because you see those levels of those videogames you played arrange and rearrange themselves, and superimpose themselves atop of others. and you think back to who and where you were then fondly. but then, suddenly, they begin to morph and look stranger and stranger, and like they're from some videogame you've never seen before, on some system you've never heard of before, in some language you don't understand. and then those levels begin to mold and intersect themselves with places you've been and things you've seen and experienced in the flesh - so much so that it's impossible to separate them anymore. and now all the puzzles can't be solved anymore. and the exits are all in the wrong places, and your jump key doesn't work sometimes. and the power-ups all hurt you or change your body in strange, uncomfortable ways. and all the level designs make no sense. and the keys always break when you put them in the locks. and the princess never needed saving in the first place, nor was there ever one. and all these neatly constructed little scenarios seem to hollow themselves out and flop over, like the poorly constructed backdrop of some elementary school play, or something.

and then, as you shift around restlessly in your bed, the camera zooms out on you, in your sparsely decorated apartment, in that big city - and then, eventually - still sitting on that same small plot of land, still back in that same chicken coop, still being watched by those same farmers, still fighting tirelessly and endlessly for that same little mound of dirt.

fact is, you can't buy your way out of this one.

Friday, February 28, 2014

How To Be A Nice Person On The Internet And Not Speak For Others

this is a response to some discussion threads happening on twitter recently among some queer games people that center around a bunch of tweets made by a transwoman, which i have quoted in full below. the tweets led to a discussion about exclusivity in queer circles, in this case the queer gaming one - and the perceived endless infighting and divisiveness among it. i talked a little bit about some of my experiences with this a couple months ago on this blog, for those interested.

the below quote will probably be upsetting and/or triggering for some to read. and so i'm going to place a TRIGGER WARNING! on this whole article for that reason, for that and for some of the things i'm bringing up later. i understand that several people might not want them to be brought up again, but i think it's important to look at the language of the offending tweets for the ideas they represent so that we can better understand how these things often manifest themselves. i'm not interested in singling out or calling out the person who posted this or saying they're a bad person, or whatever. i'm not going to name them either, and i don't believe it's important to anyway. i also understand that people can be inclined to say more upsetting things than they usually would in the midst of angry tweeting, but that doesn't change the overall sentiment, which is something i've heard multiple people i know express to varying degrees.

note that i cleaned up some of the spelling and shorthand of the tweets a bit so it's more obvious what's being talked about:

for anyone who hasn't spent tons of time around angry, jaded trans women, here's a vocabulary term you might not know: "theys"

"theys": white skinny FAAB (female-assigned at birth) intellectually-genderqueer women's studies students who think being trans is a contest to have the most intellectually rigorous gender identity, who experience masculinity as a fun thing they can put on to experience liberation and privilege, but can still totally fit themselves into women's spaces, and for whom "visibility" is the foremost goal, who think they're more oppressed than trans women because not everyone understands their gender.

The Theys think that because They're trans, They're not implicated in transmisogyny.

In reality, They're the most direct descendants of the original post-gender transmisogynistic early feminists.

Now, just as I hate all men but have a couple men in my life that I love and trust deeply, I also dislike Theys but have some in my life.

In fact, one of my best friends is a They.

That said, my rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off. I recommend it to all women, especially trans women.

"theys" as a descriptor strikes a pretty strong chord, since it's the most direct way to signify an other ("they", by definition, signifies a group of people who is not you) and it bears an uneasy resemblance to xenophobic language used against immigrants and PoC, especially when the author says their "rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off". in this case, it's also a snarky way to redefine and disrespect the language of people who choose to identify by "they". By portraying "theys" as privileged, skinny, white women's studies majors it also presents a caricature of queer people that is similar to the one portrayed hatefully outside the West as the embodiment of queer culture - endless privilege, excess, entitlement, and self-righteousness. the choice of language is what probably makes this the one of the more extreme examples of this sentiment that i've seen expressed online.

still, i'm going to have to admit this is a sentiment, however ugly it's worded here, that i've felt in the past was true a lot of the time - even if i never really openly expressed it (at least on these terms). there is a general sense among many transwomen i've known that women's spaces are traditionally built as a haven for "FAAB" people, not for us and our concerns, and therefore there's less willingness to trust or identify with things that happen in women's spaces. this is a very valid concern, because it's a thing that still seems to happen. even if transwomen are now treated with much more respect and compassion than we have been in the past, there's still a lot of misunderstanding and white-washing of our experiences in ways that can be, quite frankly, insulting and dehumanizing. there's often nearly not enough room in these spaces to allow for differences of experience to where every individual person feels comfortable being themselves. and so maybe transwomen dominate queer game and tech spaces, but we are much less of a presence elsewhere. and we have much less likelihood of being accepted by and taken into dominant cultural narratives that traditionally fetishize "FAAB" people's bodies but still (in the end) will probably see us as disgusting impostors.

but also - creating an exclusive community to cater to our supposed experiences as transwomen doesn't do much of anything fix the problem of spaces lacking inclusivity! in actuality, it even excludes a lot of transwomen! there are many different axes of oppression, after all. what about race, what about immigration status, what about disability, what about sexual trauma, what about income level, what about body image, what about culture? you may think you're doing a great service by righteously speaking for people who fit your particular group, when in reality you're speaking for maybe 10-20% of the people who do. you might not, in fact, be very aware or conscious of their experiences at all. but that sure seems like a lot if you're well-connected on social media! and so the idea of a universal transwoman "experience" may be a nice thing to entertain to feel connected to others with some similar experiences, but it starts to evaporate the more deeply you go into exploring all these different axes. people continue to feel excluded, and then they create their own exclusive communities catering more to their specific concerns, and then they make someone else who fits some but not all of those categories feel excluded again. and it just goes on, and on.

and let's talk about the fetishization of "FAAB" bodies. if you feel like you find both "female" and "male" cultural conceptions of gender incredibly limiting because of the way they've directly enforced an idea of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and presentation on you, what should you do? accept "i am a woman", or "i am a man" and all the implications that may or may not come with that, both internally (to you) and externally (to any other people)? or maybe you choose a term that at least, hopefully, somewhat better expresses your indifference towards these narrow conceptions of gender that are having a limiting effect on who you are and what you can do. and maybe that term isn't perfect, but maybe it does help you escape some of the ideological barriers placed around you.

i understand (firsthand) that gender dysphoria is a different thing altogether from just feeling alienation from abstract cultural constructions of gender, yet they're so often so deeply intertwined that it can be hard for many to understand how and why they're different. i identify as a woman, but i fully admit that the idea of "woman" wasn't shoved down my throat growing up in the way that it is for FAAB people, and because of that i was allowed more of an opportunity to create my own definition of what that means for me. i also feel like i probably fit the stereotype of "woman" better than a lot of people - i often feel much more comfortable with a more traditionally "femme" appearance. FAAB people are often taught that there are things you just can't or shouldn't do, because you're supposedly this idea of a "woman", which supposedly means you just can't do some things - like big creative things, or science or mathy things! i experienced something much different - feeling like i had to be a Big Deal and Super Smart for anyone to care about me or anything i said at all. both of these are oppressive ideas to implant into people early on, and it's often hard for one side to see the other's experience as being truly oppressive.

speaking of bodily dysphoria, one very big reason a person who identifies as genderqueer but who does not experience gender dysphoria in the way trans people do might do so because of past trauma involving their bodies - like, say, rape. this is NOT to say that all of their identity is necessarily a response to that trauma - but that it can be a factor a lot of people overlook because of outward signs of privilege. i understand that this is a dangerous issue to bring up because it's used to shame and dismiss a lot of queer identities, but i want to remind others that by dismissing FAAB folks in the way the original tweet does, they might be participating in rape culture. bodily dysphoria is a thing that happens to a lot of people for many different reasons, not just ones related to a particular gender orientation. so some "FAAB" folks may not feel like a "man" in the full-on gender dysphoria sense, but they may desire to have the sort of power that was inflicted on them instead of feeling like a powerless victim (as well as experiencing less ideological barriers placed on their identity, etc). and so, adopting a genderqueer identity might allow them to feel less like another victim of rape culture.

when dominant culture fetishizes your body, and fetishizes this very idea of "femininity", and conditions males to see women as sex objects and prizes, i can see why you might have some pretty fucking legitimate concerns - even if you not necessarily experiencing gender dysphoria - for not wanting to identify as a "female"! especially when it is directly triggering to a very real traumatic experience you've undergone. this is something people who've not had this experience will, fundamentally, just not understand. this is also an 100% real and valid way to respond, and does absolutely not mean you're "making up" these feelings or anything like that, nor does it mean you're not experiencing dysphoria for many other reasons. as a survivor, there is nothing i could say that would ever really come close to describe the enormity of pain i've experienced. and, of course, i'm not saying that plenty of MAAB (male-assigned at birth) people don't experience rape too. particularly transwomen. i'm one of those people, after all. but because of that, i feel like i have more insight into how rape culture can define the terms of this discussion than people who haven't gone through it do.

let's talk about terms, also. i understand we make FAAB and MAAB distinctions so we can talk about existing power dynamics. but like, it certainly doesn't feel good for me to be described as MAAB, and i can't imagine most transmen feeling good about being called FAAB either. and so maybe they are nebulous distinctions that only exist because of cultural conditioning and we shouldn't be giving credence to them? maybe by using them we end up falling back into the "Language of Our Oppressors" category?

look - many people feel excluded, and many people experience horrifying levels of pain and suffering at the hands of a dominant culture that erases, oftentimes actively destroys their being, their autonomy, their existence. and so maybe we can have a little empathy and acknowledge that it isn't always about us - and we even may be complicit in someone else's suffering on one of those axes we hadn't thought about? maybe we can also recognize that making generalizations or broad statements about the experiences of us and others is what directly creates the sorts of environments that lead to exclusion and infighting?

instead, as a rule, whenever making broad statements, how about we just always assume there are any number of people outside our own experience who will have insight on many issues that we, fundamentally, just lack? this is something we sure don't like seem to like doing, particularly in the "first world", because it feels better not to think about it.

and hey, okay, it's great that you feel empowered for saying that thing but maybe your empowerment doesn't have to always involve making someone else feel like a piece of shit! it'd be nice to see a lot more effort made to understand the nature of those experiences outside our own, to understand that they are not an attack on our being and to not speak for them, or over them, or defensively in reaction to them, because we recognize the kind of spaces that creates: ones defined by infighting, exclusion, silencing, repression, emotional outbursts, defensiveness, misdirected rage, and hurt feelings. this goes for anyone and everyone. it doesn't feel good for anyone involved to have those spaces, so why do we keep making them that way? we need to listen and empathize to create the kind of spaces we wish had been created for us. and that means: have some fucking respect.

Friday, February 21, 2014

simulated memories

here i go, trying to Write Something For A Website again.

but those words - they don't come. words that do come, come slowly and unsurely. with trepidation, i try slowly rolling back over doing something that seemed to come so easily before, but i hardly get anywhere. shoveling ground that can't be shoveled anymore. the ground is hard as rock, all frozen over. things look strange and different now. i see people i don't recognize, or their faces seem to have changed somehow. the landscape is strange and alien. i feel sick all of a sudden. i get more headaches. i'm unsure what i was really saying or building up before was of any good use, or if it wasn't just me puffing myself up. wasn't i just hoping for something, some recognition? something to get me out of the hole i'm in? someone to save me? ...huh? where am i? what is all this?

hey, here i am, somewhere, so i might as well try. what else do i have? survival comes before all else, in a panicked frenzy. nervously laughing at the sun and the sky, hoping they don't catastrophically fall. and yet even survival is just barely met. the light is much too bright outside for me to look at for very long.

i get images, like this image that keeps coming back from the beginning of episode 2 level 4 of Wolfenstein 3D:

it seems so gray, looking at it again, and so empty. you thought it was yellow, the color of the ceilings in a lot of the other levels. or dark green. or i thought it was yellow. you, i, they become the same.

hahaha, you're so stupid for thinking about this. but you would. your mind would go there, you little bitch. you're so pathetic. what about all the people who didn't have what you had, you fucker? they didn't have fucking videogames to escape into. you and your fucking simulated memories.

in this particular area, there are two sides of the hall, yet i specifically see the image of the left side in my mind's eye. the left side is where the exit lies, and on the north side of the map. is that what it is? an interesting opening idea, and certainly memorable because of the zombie you shoot at the start (off-screen). is it that zombie? he's evil, he's scary, he's unknown. he's grotesque, and he only appears at times. the slimy vines on the walls are an unknown. or are you confusing the green slime on the walls with the vines on the purple walls in the game? those vines, they're a representation of something, something else. they tell me something else. they're telling me to think, but i don't want to think. hahaha, that's not true, i say. i'm better than this. i will not let it get me down. i will not do this again. i refuse. i'm putting my foot down.

but then, inevitably, there's an unbearable darkness - one that i keep wanting to cry when i try and think about it too deeply. it's not there when i look back at it now on the outside, but it's still there somewhere. i want to point it out frantically and shout that it's there. why can't anyone else see it? where is this coming from? i remember that specifically playing this level is attached to a traumatic memory of mine. a dark time, dark thoughts. one that i would rather not explore anymore. one i would rather not think about. the barbed, scaly tendrils of time close up around it and rapidly overtake it in a dark fog as i recede outward from it. i cannot smile and act like i'm still there, that little child. the sadness comes, and it is overwhelming. i have to close the door after too long.

over time, things should fade. and yet here it still is staring me in the face, just as intently as ever. i can't even crane my neck to look away for a second. it is bolted in place.

it's not just this space, it's all of them. they're all there. episode 5 level 4, the completely symmetrical level. haha. the beginning. mister officer. the police guy, the fucking blue one. he has a machine gun. he's gonna shoot me. more and more of him, the same everywhere. always the same. but they're just meat. not even meat, digital meat. weird, funny little impulses. they don't mean anything, really. 

what are these spaces? why are there here? i look for a reason, but none comes. i cry at the infinite abyss, and people laugh or are confused, or they laugh, confused. they don't know and they never will.

it's not about me. it's about something else entirely. product worship. so pathetic. no real memories. no real hopes or dreams. always inside a machine. always living life inside a machine, because outward life doesn't exist. it's horrible. you're just part of a fucking stupid culture. a fake fucking culture. a subculture. don't try to look for support, cause you're not gonna get it. don't try and understand, because it can't be understood. it's all about anger, and product worship. it's all about the hatred, and the gnashing of teeth. the beast that snarls and howls and pulls apart the flesh those that get in its way. those people fight for their simulated memories tooth and nail but you can't fight for yours, because they seem so stupid and indefinite. so silly. so ridiculous. so childish.

everything's looping back on itself. circles and circles and circles again. circles and circles and got to stop spinning.

try to resurrect, rebuild. reconstruct these memories. try not to laugh at myself for how silly this all is, and how silly i am. how stupid must i be. i can't speak, not like i used to. instead of grasping at anything and everything i can, the truths now seem to float above my head, loudly proclaiming themselves and i am overwhelmed. hahaha. i can't. the thoughts come - indefinite, incomplete. unsure how to manifest themselves. dancing a strange little dance. sometimes violent. sometimes they calm down for awhile and let me look at them.

take your memories and your pain and hastily paint BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH over top of them until you can only see little bits and pieces of those partially obscured memories, with smiley faces drawn all over them. Winking Emoticon, *nudge* *nudge*, you guys. boy howdy, will you look at that. i don't want it to be this way, but it is undeniably this way. here you are a part of this world, this infinite series of little uniform patterns and grids, shuffling along, gradually erasing what was underneath and starting the same pattern anew.

and so, take all the complicated emotions you felt and try to distill them so that anyone in the world will understand. don't hope that anything will be maintained in the translation. don't even try to be true to them in the first place. no one will understand if you do. they'll squint their eyes slightly in the way they do and cock their head, perplexed. they must be feverishly following those shuffling patterns, hanging on for dear life. "huh? wtf am i reading?" wtf is this bullshit?

you're just crazy. 

tell me you're crazy, maybe then i'll understand. you say this to everyone around you, silently. they don't hear it, even if you say it.

but that's because it's all been taken over, isn't it? it's all been colonized. colonized memories. digital support groups sponsored by Pepsi and Mountain Dew and Doritos. evil entities that cannot help themselves. digital lions. big square machines on a strict schedule of complicated circuitous routes that take in and poop out at an alarmingly fast and strange rate. their patterns appear so erratic and convoluted to look like they cannot possibly be maintained, yet they somehow are for the time being. and no one notices, or wants to notice. snack like you can never snack again, because it's no more, that space is no more. it's just a memory, that's all.

and then, proud statements i make come back to me. i see myself as silly little thing. a silly, sad little thing. it's all a lie. what a joke. but maybe there's also something there. maybe they can't see. maybe they never will. you tear up slightly thinking about it. maybe that's all there is.

it's time for you to do something, but what? tell the world? what? what do you have to say? what will it mean? what ways can it be aggregated and related and complicated and juxtaposed and rearranged? what conceptual frameworks can you be made to fit into? what trends are you seeking? what is your target demographic? where is all of this going? why am i reading this? why is this on my feed? who are you? why should i care about this? when will you ever stop being this way? what headaches are yet to come, ahead of you? what people are you yet to deal with in this arena? where will you be in fifty years time? where will you be in one years time?

it's all a mystery. just a mystery. not something you can even think about, or pretend to think about. you entertained a notion of it before, but that is gone. it's not for you, not your life. you strongly suspect it isn't really anyone's life either. probably not. yeah, that's a good thought. that's progress.

anyway. whatever. yep, whatever. hmm. well, whatever. 

oh well. time to erase and try again.

Monday, February 3, 2014

sound as a commodity

note: this is cross-posted from

my favorite thing about making music is exploring sound. arguably that is entirely what making music is. sound is wired deep into human consciousness. the right combination of sounds can be so utterly ecstatic and unique that experiencing it makes words seem like empty, impotent signifiers. but because of this ability to almost instantaneously stir up deep emotions, sound is really commodifiable. it didn’t take long before the dubstep “sound” to become a complete cliche in the public consciousness, but at one time it probably came off as really fresh and energizing, even revolutionary to the people who were early fans. distorted electric guitars were once kind of terrifying too, but now i can’t think of any sound that’s more establishment-friendly. listen to the first chords of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”, a progression that’s been in way more movies and commercials than i could ever have any desire to count. it’s such a ubiquitous sound, i guess because of how simple yet emphatic it is, that it can easily signify hundreds of different emotions. because of the overuse, using it now means absolutely nothing at this point other than reminding the listeners they’re listening to the opening of Baba O’Riley.

this is one of the areas where i think folk music has a vast advantage, because it has a very long-standing tradition of complex, multi-layered lyricism about life and love, generally performed very simply. there’s a sense that the lyrics in the song are getting at some vast truth not immediately apparent until you reach the ending. whereas a lot of electronic music feels like a static object that says what it says or does what it does and then leaves. it’s like candy - and that’s how a lot of people see it. a lot of people i know on rock music messageboards certainly do, anyway - and tend to like rock music (beyond it being something they grew up with) for ostensibly similar reasons as folk music - the immediacy and emphatic directness of a band’s emotions seems much looser and less easy to commodify. if there are walls imposed on the band, its members can brake them nearly instantaneously by descending into a huge cacophonous mess of sound. they are purely humans and exert their own control over the sounds that come out of their instruments.

but once any music is recorded, it becomes a “sound” - even when it’s just solo piano, or a voice and acoustic guitar. and it’s probably impossible in the current culture to not be commodified once your music reaches a certain part of popularity. whether or not M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is a song satirizing xenophobic attitudes about immigrants, 15-year old white kids from rich US suburbs can still take it at surface value and try to look cool imitating the gunshot sounds in it when it hits no #1. that cacophonous mess from a rock band can also still be chopped up and used to signify whatever cultural ideas in advertisements and films an editor wants. nothing is safe. not to mention that these days, with audio software being so immediately accessible to anyone with a computer, it’s impossible to not be confronted with constantly thinking about the sound of the thing you’re making.

with that in mind - when making music, i tend to want to look for creating sounds similar to sounds from music i like as reference points. they’re the sounds that most immediately evoke stuff in me. the plinky, arpeggiating synths in the opening of The Knife’s “Silent Shout” or “Forest Families” does a lot to me with very little. or the tentative, almost comically sparse handclaps in James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. there’s a sense of confidence, of something much deeper filling in the spaces of those very simple sounds. i would say that it also makes them less commodifiable but that’s not really true, as weird new sounds generally have a way of becoming cliches quickly once they become popular.

anyway, i start this process of coming up with a sound, but then i get sucked into the wormhole of worrying about whether the sound i’m doing is interesting enough, and if it really signifies what i might think it does. i end up spending so long worrying about whether i’m saying something or not with the sound that i lose track of the central idea and get so frustrated i give up in the early phases. the sound has to be “perfect” to me or i can’t continue.

the thing is, no sound is ever perfect. no piece of music is ever perfect. and i know this. it’s not about me or my identity as a good or interesting artist, it’s about making a piece of music that evokes emotions in me. i know this too. but it’s still been my biggest struggle - struggling with feeling like i’m doing something interesting enough sound-wise while also worrying about whether what i’m expressing is the deepest, best expression of me, instead of just trying to get something down. i’m able to avoid this making the visual art i’ve been doing lately because i have no preconceived notions of talent or skill, but with music i have all kinds of baggage.

ultimately my goal is creating a piece of music that explores unique sounds but uses them as an extension of the emotions the music is intended to express, like folk music. i want to feel like the sounds are all there for a reason, not just meaningless pretty dressing slathered over everything - and that they’re getting at something deeper, something massive by using whatever means. and that’s very hard, and it’s been extremely easy to psych myself out. not talking about this with people has also been tremendously hard for me, as it has for me to find anyone to talk to this about who’ll get what i’m saying. i don’t think there’s a lot of conscious critical thought about sound, even among people who are working musicians. i don’t think a lot of people want to think too much about it, even. people want to think music is something intangible and magical, not a bunch of math. but it’s always both!

exploring interesting new sound is so completely important to me that i feel like i easily lose sight of the real important thing, which is just making something that is an expression of my emotions. and that’s, in the end, the thing that i respond to most in the artists i like - and what makes me keep coming back to their music. they endure even when their sound becomes a commodity. so i think that’s the most important thing for me to remember - to just try stuff out without preconceptions and hope for the best. sometimes just hoping for the best has created some of the most beautiful, enriching art made by humans. it’s hard to remember that when it’s just you sitting on your laptop and staring at a bunch of grids, though.