Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Learning to Love Wisely

Posted: August 16, 2017 by Twitchdoctor in Uncategorized


What can one of the most violent video games ever created teach us about love?  Check out my essay on love, videogame criticism and Wolfenstein: The New Order in Kiwi literary magazine The Pantograph Punch.

I spend a lot of my time trying, in print and in person, to work against the negative stereotypes that abound concerning videogames and gamers.  Sure, sometimes that effort involves pointing up some of the negative characteristics of gamers and game developers that a lot of people either don’t notice or tacitly accept as “just the way things are.”  Yet, on the whole I am usually trying to convince others that the world of gaming is interesting, complex, significant and, potentially, a hugely important force shaping our culture.  Every so often, however, I’m reminded how powerfully the gaming industry is not an ally in this effort.


One of the things that continues to fascinate me about videogames is that they are thoroughly mainstream. . .and yet they aren’t.  They are mainstream in the sense of being massively popular and the preferred leisure activity of a large and increasingly diverse segment of the population.  But they are not mainstream in the sense that our culture still doesn’t really “get” games.  This is not, I hasten to add, a woes-me complaint that mommy and daddy culture don’t really understand us (sniff).  Hell, most gamers I’ve met don’t really “get” games.  They do all the things that the non-gaming sections of our culture do, either through inclination or force of habit: they approach games in a pure consumerist frenzy, they see them as simple outgrowths of other media and activities or, alternately, as something supposedly so radically different that they can’t be compared to anything else and hence none of the rules apply.

A major reason why games are mainstream but not is because on the cultural stage the conversations are controlled by people who by and large are not videogame players: Concerned Parents, professional rabble-rousers, politicians, moral crusaders and, sadly, not a few opportunistic scholars (although the number of game studies “scholars” who have a limited experience with games has certainly diminished compared with when I entered the field).  Again, however, it is important not to let game players and the game industry off the hook.  All too many players and developers have taken themselves out of the conversation through their belief that games themselves are capable of saying little more than “play me and leave me.”


I’ll probably start off with this story in every blog post that I write in my life, but when I was thirteen years old I had the honor to found and lead a clan called The Order in the game Star Wars: Jedi Academy. What proceeded was a five year journey that would change my life. I met hundreds of people online, made friends around the world, and most importantly created just the kind of organization that Clay Shirky describes in his book Here Comes Everybody. Clans are different then other online communities, but still operate below the ‘Coasean floor’ and still use the interaction of promise, tools, and bargain in order to achieve this. Still, online game communities serve as excellent models of organizing without organizations and raise interesting questions about the democratizing effects of online social tools.

Online communities in video games go by a number of different names and these names can highlight some very important differences. In Jedi Academy, communities are called clans, while in most other games they are called guilds. Some games have different names for their communities according to the content of the game. For example, both Second Life and EVE Online refer to their communities as corporations reflecting the economic nature of the game-play. In general, however, games that come with a developer supported interface, tools, and other systems that allow the players to create and maintain communities are called guilds. For games that do not support communities, players create their own systems in order to organize clans. For example, in the games Counter-strike and Jedi Academy, the game does not support the creation of guilds. Still, players band together and create communities anyway, usually signified by changing avatar’s name to share some characteristics and staying to one server or location. Clans are an important example of organization below the Coasean floor because of this fact: players go out of their way to create organizations where there were none before and where none are required or even supported, but they do it anyway. There is little value to an organization like a clan other than the enjoyment of it’s members. Without modern social tools, creating a world-spanning organizations simply in order to enjoy a game would be too costly compared to their value.

Shirky borrows the idea of the Coasean Floor from a 1937 paper called “The Nature of the Firm” by Ronald Coase to help show what online social tools do for group forming. The Coasean floor is the point which transaction costs are high enough that no matter how valuable an activity is it is not worth creating an organization to do it. Before online social tools, communication and organization costs money, of which there is none for online gaming communities. The internet, the mobile phone, and other technologies changed this. For example, it no longer matters how much time it takes for a message to reach point B from point A; it matters how long it takes for the recipient to notice they have a message. Clans operate below the Coasean floor, regardless of the fact that there is no system to support them, they create themselves anyway at very little cost. “Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any organization structure, because they lay under the Coasean floor.” (Shirky, 47) Applied to clans, this means that anyone can form an organization around a game they enjoy, even if the game does not support such organization.

Clans are created through the interaction of promise, tool, and bargain, just like how Shirky describes other online organizations are created. For guilds in games that have a goal, joining a guild means joining with a promise to progress in the game farther, earn better rewards, and work together better. For clans, the promise tends to be more like “let’s identify together in order to make the game more interesting.” Games with guilds tend to have a lot more replay value, are updated consistently, and are much more populated. People create clans in order to increase replay value in games that aren’t constantly updated with new content, joining or creating a clan is like making your own content. In the case of Jedi Academy, this is often done through role-playing. In Counter-strike, this is done through inter-clan tournaments. The internet also offers a number of tools that are critical to the formation of clans. Most importantly of all is the design of the game itself, Jedi Academy‘s game-play is a much better equipped game to foster the development of clans than Counter-strike‘s game-play is. Both games however, support game-modding, which means to literally add in your own game content. This allows players to customize their games and create game content that supports their clans. Finally, communication programs like X-Fire and online internet forums make communication between members easy and easily allow players to connect to the right place so that members can play together.

Most interesting of all is the bargains that clans develop. Shirky writes that “A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you.” Clans establish joining procedures, codes of conduct, complicated hierarchies and ranks, and even governing documents. These governing documents are particularly interesting, because nearly always in both guilds and clans democracy is the basis of the governing system, usually combined with some sort of oligarchy. Observations have shown that nearly all online communities (but particularly clans) will go out of their way and force the vote into their system. The vote is a powerful bargain, giving every member of the organization a say in what is going on. However, the most successful online gaming community, the Syndicate, is governed by the benevolent dictatorship of it’s founder. Contrary to what is anecdotally the best model for governing an online gaming community, players will still design their communities with democracy in mind.

An often found model of clan leadership is the ‘officership’ model. A few selected members, titled officers, make the decisions for the organization as a group. These decisions can range from who to recruit, who to promote, what server to play on, to various game-play related decisions. These officers are often selected by the other officers, but vote enters anyway generally through two ways. Between the officers, decision making is always done through a majority-rules vote. Also, any larger issues that the officers do not feel they can make alone are submitted to the organization for vote. The Syndicate runs with an officership model also, except that the officers serve simply to advise the guild master on the best course of action, however what action to take is the guild master’s responsibility to decide. This model, as long as the guild master acts to the benefit of the organization, is far more efficient because it reduces the transaction costs of the leadership of the clan. An organization within an organization that suffers just the same benefits and problems with online social media as the organization does as a whole.

Why then, are communities forcing the vote into their bargains? One could use this as evidence that new social tools are indeed democratizing the world, that guilds and clans are examples of a new age where democracy and the vote are the default mode of governance. However, before this claim can be argued, one has to ask oneself an important question. If we find democracy in guilds and clans in America, will we find it in guilds and clans in other countries as well? Will the vote be held to the same respect in China, or will authoritarianism be the default governing style of online gaming communities? What about in the middle-east, will theology be forced into every governing document, or does that one depend on the game’s content? Where does the officer oligarchy fit into the picture, if most guilds and clans use a combination of democracy and rule of the elite? I would like to say that guilds and clans can be a case-study of the internet democratizing the world, but I’d be willing to guess the answer is that we have just gotten really good at teaching our youth about the importance of the vote. So much so, that they force it into even the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential of groups: the clan.

Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.


Upon leaving a reply to “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care,” I soon realized that the reply was quickly becoming its own post. So here it is.

My good Twitchdoctor, I am pleased that you tackle the question of “Are games art?” in the way that you have – in that you’re engaging the question itself. Beyond inspiring us to seriously consider games as art (or as texts or as narratives or as heralding the downfall of all of humankind), I grow tired of these “grand debates,” ones that exist only within the framework of a false binary. For instance, I understand — although without question partially disagree — with Carmack’s claim (also appearing in the McNamara article) that “A gamer pays to play, not to admire.” Ultimately, what Carmack intends, I think, like many ludologists have done (especially more than five or so years ago), elevating the actual gaming aspect of games. Sure, that makes sense, given that a game is, well, a game. We should be emphasizing their ludic, game-like, qualities. But such binaries are also foolishly simplistic as many gamers/scholars/designers/developers doubtless realize.

I take to heart your comment in response to games-as-art that “there is no reason that games, like other art forms, shouldn’t do both, or neither” (I might reiterate that “neither” portion, as I have attempted to play games that are virtually unplayable; I have tried to see as art, objects of art for art’s sake that I cannot, no matter my mind’s openness, see any artistic value in and certainly no function; likewise, I have seen plenty of objects that are intended solely to be functional that simply aren’t, yet they without question are not art, either . . . take, for instance, pretty much anything labeled “As Seen On TV”). Our obsession with absolutes — “yes or no” and “all or nothing” as you accurately put it in your post — frustrate me thoroughly. And you’re right, it’s not whether games are art, but rather “whether” (I’d say “when”) specific game titles can be considered art, or, to put it another way, what artistic elements we see in specific game titles. “Art” versus “artistic” might provide a clearer lens through which to look at these objects, and one that might reveal another question that you pose regarding motivation.

It is motivation, to some extent (those of game authors, gamers, and critics). For instance, I wonder if part of Carmack’s problem, too, when he labels those who claim games-as-art are sophists, even on an unconscious level, is that the critics are elevating themselves, for if games are works of art, then game critics are contributing to cultural knowledge, revealing and making meaning, whereas if games are merely commodities, critics are simply writing product reviews. And there has long existed a tension between critics and artists, as much as their relationships can be symbiotic. [This may really not be the case, even if I find it plausible, though, as I should point out that Au, quoting Carmack, indicates that Carmack is implicating “fellow developers” and not game critics: “In an apparent slam at fellow developers who strive for something higher …” (Au). This pointing-the-finger-at game developers and not critics changes the game, slightly, but I’ll get back to that).

Motivation need not be singular, either, though — we might think about, in addition to motivation, a matter of motivational priority. In other words, while my instinct is to say definitively (and obviously) that a game is both art and commodity (it is, or at least can be), I am willing to instead (or also) ask the question, “To what extent is a game a work of art and to what extent is it a commodity?” (Which is NOT to ask for some silly percentage or numeric value, but merely to point out that we can investigate games in numerous ways simultaneously; to put it yet another way, might a game be a commodity first and a work of art second?) That’s potentially a more productive and accurate way to frame the question (especially in that we might generate some identifiable answer to the question or at least an arguable, plausible claim, rather than just perpetuating the debate itself ad nauseam). Furniture is art. Or can be. But largely, furniture is first functional, and only then is it artistic (or do we have to bring up the distinction, now, between the “fine” and “decorative” arts? … although perhaps I’ll reveal my barbarity when I comment that if a painting isn’t “decorative,” then I don’t know what is.) Automobiles are works of art. Or can be. Compare a Delahaye to a Ford, and the case is made. But largely, automobiles are first functional, and then artistic (although not incidentally, many of those beautiful 1930s coach-built shapes also aided in aerodynamics, and their designers intentionally were pursuing aerodynamic qualities — without the benefit of windtunnels — while still focusing on pleasing, beautiful shapes: the functional can be beautiful, the beautiful can be functional). Quilts are art. Or can be. But largely, they’re functional first – it’s a poor quilt that won’t keep out the shivers, but it’s not as nice a quilt whose stitching is all uneven. Anyway, I think we get the idea.

Also on the question of motivation, you mention that “‘True’ artists are not supposed to be motivated by money but by the purity of their creative drive. If this were true, however, the list of art works in our culture would be pathetically short.” Yep, Twitchdoctor, yep. There’s no inherent problem with being also motivated by economic gain, even if just to support one’s artistic (or other noble) endeavors. In fact, this is where Carmack’s comment about “sophistry” gets especially interesting to me (as much as I recognize that he’s likely just using the term to mean “mere rhetoric” as we do in the common parlance), for we might argue along the same lines for teachers (wait for it…). So Carmack says, “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry.” Let’s unpack that. The “aggrandizing” the gaming industry that some of its developers pursue — the elevating of, the exaggeration of the importance of — is indicating that, what, an artwork is “higher” than a game? Or, another interpretation that takes your smart “Art versus Commerce” section into account: because the motivation to create art is supposed to be somehow “pure” (that is, not for monetary gain), Carmack and the game industry should go ahead and recognize that they’re in it for the money – that games are indeed a lucrative commodity (they certainly were for Carmack). Many games are (but not always). (Or perhaps we can be more generous, and say Carmack’s intention is that games should be about gaming and playing, not art, and not necessarily money?) At any rate, these are, let’s admit, nice, honest claims. But again, they’re overly simplistic. Games are money-makers, entertainment media, and art — but each one is only potentially any of these.

But what an odd reversal of “sophistry,” which is also linked to motivation. It is well known that the philosophers took serious issue with the sophists, for the sophists accepted student fees for teaching (and accepting payment versus not accepting payment was in part what made a sophist a sophist, and a philosopher a philosopher, respectively). Somehow that made the sophists’ motivations impure, like those artists who smartly realize that their work may have commercial value. What’s more, motivation was at the heart of philosophy versus sophistry: as Plato may have had it, philosophers seek truth (presumably for the common good), while sophists seek only to teach people to persuade (in other words, “mere rhetoric”) and for monetary gain. If we over-simplify, then, we may come up with the following. In Carmack’s statement,

game-developer-artists = sophists = aggrandizing (games or the gaming industry)

And in terms of the original use of the term “sophistry,”

money-making-teachers = sophists = belittling (truth or the philosophic “industry”)

Like you do of artists, Twitchdoctor, I can imagine how many teachers we’d have now (or philosophers, for that matter) if being paid was not part of the bargain (I’ll refrain from snide commentary about how teachers’ salaries make that condition pretty close to the truth anyway). It might be fun to brainstorm a list of teachers who would argue how heinous being paid for their work is (yet that activity won’t provide much fun for long). Seems to me, then, these false binaries may inspire us to think about them, as I mentioned, and that’s productive. But they also have the potential to cloud the truth, which is, whether you’re Carmack, a developer calling games art, a critic, a gamer, a teacher, a philosophy, that all of these objects rest comfortably in-between all of these absurd boundaries — it is we who don’t.

References (from “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care”)

Au, W. J. (2002, May 6). Playing games with free speech. Salon.
McNamara, T. (2004, March 26). GDC 2004: John Carmack talks game development.

I was delighted (and oddly, albeit slightly, “discomfited”) to see the following ad in my emailbox recently:

Brodart is a company that has for decades specialized in library equipment, supplies, and furniture.  (Note that I have no affiliation whatsoever with Brodart, save that I have used its mylar dustjacket covers for years, with their lovely, non-reactive plastic which prevent books’ covers from deteriorating as they do, and makes them all shiny to boot – sorry: you know, books, the kind one can hold and read and flip the pages of?  But I digress).  Education and gaming is not an “easy” partnership (as some would have us believe, but I don’t mean to imply that it need or should be), perhaps especially when administrators (of public educational institutions) are fighting politicians interested only in privatizing education) and parents (who are constantly looking for the next media scapegoat to explain their underachieving and generally apathetic children) are involved in the conversation.  Yet here it is, “Gaming at Your Library,” which pleases me (and, I admit, somewhat dismays me as a gamer and as a library-goer).

For a mere $1345 (extracted from educational institutions with exceedingly difficult budget and cashflow problems, no doubt), your university library can get the “Brodart Solutions Gaming Station” (perhaps to put alongside its carrels?), the “wedge-shaped mobile gaming station with ganging capability.”  Ganging capability.  I know what that means, but tell me, does that or does that not sound off?  The station also comes equipped with “locking cabinet” which “keeps gaming equipment safe and secure.”  Well that’s good.  But I suppose it also conceivably implies something about that equipment or the people who desire it.  Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the ganging and potential theft that’s unnerving.  (I’m sure, too, that clients will veritably demand that they receive their ganging-capable, lockable, wedge-shaped, mobile gaming station with the Victorian finish – no, I’m not making that up.)

A colleague of mine was equally as fascinated by the library-gaming development that the advertisement implies, and was specifically intrigued by the physicality of the station: that is, many students (I still hesitate to say “the majority of”) feel neither responsibility nor compulsion to physically enter a university library, and many gamers have no need of physically occupying the same space to play.  My colleague says, “The ad implies the importance of attending to the physicality of places (and how we inhabit those places) and bodies as well as points to possible tension between gaming and academics.  (To be clear, I do not see them as mutually exclusive).”  Hear, hear!  I wonder – should these gaming stations become commonplace in library spaces (about which I admit serious doubts) – if it may herald a return to those tabletop Pac-Man and Space Invaders games that used to appear in pizza parlors (in the days before one simply ordered one’s pizza online).  I, for one, adore face-to-face gaming, even when not playing multiplayer titles.  Perhaps such an endeavor as Brodart’s can put, in a limited way, the “connect” back in the term “connected.”