Friday, September 13, 2013

It's not called the Wheel.

Tomorrow--today, technically--is the Boston FIG. I exploited my on-again / off-again / get-a-job-in-the-card-office again relationship with, as well as the festival's willingness to accommodate any asshole who wanders in off the street calling himself a journalist, and will be in attendance tomorrow for low-key gaming, paneling, tweeting, and drinking.

It's also, for me, the social event of the season. Not that I know too many of the people there. I'll recognize a few faces from CMS and WiG, but mostly they'll be strangers, brought there by common experience and common interest. I'm not a designer, and I don't much consider myself an academic anymore. I'm a player, and a writer, and other things, when time permits. I find that I'm excited to be going, and have no obvious reason for feeling so.

So, I sat with that feeling for a little while, O2, CO2. Harpoon and Game of Thrones. Cambridge in the rain. O2, CO2. The despair builds fat, he said; the rage builds muscle. O2, CO2.

When I graduated in ought-seven, I went to work on the writing. In the process, I fell out of the world a bit. I know people now who are doing the kinds of things I'd imagined myself doing in my early 20s. It's a powerful thing, having people to talk shop with. It's especially powerful if you don't know them all that well.

Life's been a bit of a nightmare this past year, but the games have been good to me, and so have the gamers. Love--of knowledge, of craft, of art--has a way of killing loneliness, even when you're alone.

As far as verbs go, you can do a hell of a lot worse.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Everybody calm the fuck down.

Like most of my generation, I don't think I'll ever forget where I was when I heard that Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman. I called my brother to tell him the news; he was in an airport in Vancouver, awaiting a flight that had no doubt been delayed as part of the general chaos that followed the announcement. The airport's inhabitants, by and large, did not seem to have heard the news. I urged my brother not to share this dark knowledge with anyone else waiting at the terminal. After all, we were in all likelihood talking about a huge bomb.

I was impressed with the speed at which the internet agreed upon the most important jokes to be told about this. It must be said, Affleck really was the bomb in Phantoms. It's fun to make fun of Affleck, though; he was cool in the late 90s, then became a pariah, and spent about a decade digging his way back to cool. Which is fine, but maybe, when it comes to cool, Batman isn't an entry level job?

What I find irritating--what interrupts the joy of an old-fashioned internet hate-on for one of the oughts' most irritating celebrities--is this weird belief that Affleck is going to hurt the Batman brand. Presumably that brand, now around seventy-five years old, is vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of a trilogy of critically acclaimed international blockbusters, along with two hugely profitable videogame adaptations and a third on the way. Also, DC still prints comic books, apparently? Nonetheless, a susbtantial portion of the internet seems to believe that, if Warner Bros. doesn't play this just right, then...well, something will happen, presumably. The flipside of this are the people who wearily express their disapproval and disbelief that there'll be more Batman films at all, because the film industry is about making the films we need, not the ones we'll pay to see.

Regardless, Affleck is a solid actor and he'll probably be a perfectly serviceable Batman. It's more likely the film will drag him down than vice versa, because, honestly, before you heard the announcement, how likely did it seem that Batman vs. Superman would be good? It's already something of a miracle that Man of Steel was as good as it was, and it's far from a unanimous opinion that it was. At the Comic-Con announcement, great care was taken to link the new film in fans' minds with act IV of Dark Knight Returns, to the point of having Harry Lennix (for some reason) read aloud Batman's victory monologue. If they're serious about that, I suspect the project is doomed from the start, because I doubt there's any way to get to where act IV of DKR begins in the first hour and a half of a movie with only Man of Steel to rely on for continuity. If it's a feint--or rather, if it's a way to dissuade people from skepticism by appealing to the most respected superhero comic of the past generation--then there's a chance it could work. I certainly wouldn't have believed it was possible to make a great Avengers movie until I saw Joss Whedon make it happen. But then, most writers aren't Joss Whedon, are they?

We nitpick actors' performances as superheroes for the same reason people argue about the best James Bond: not because these roles are particularly challenging, in and of themselves, but because they're understood to be iconic roles that are bigger than any particular actor. What makes Batman a challenging role, when it is, is a competent screenwriter. People seem to forget this very easily. Keaton's Batman was endearing for his wit, his eccentricity, and his less-than-superheroic appearance, but the first two wouldn't have worked if Sam Hamm had written him as the smarmy, catch-phrase-spouting Bruce Wayne we saw three screenwriters (one of them an Oscar winner) bring to life in Batman Forever, or the winking, self-conscious, seemingly embarrassed Bruce Wayne given us by the malevolent djinn who wrote Batman & Robin, presumably as a punishment for the sins of mankind. Similarly, Christian Bale's cynical, obsessive, self-destructive Batman wasn't something Bale improvised on set; David Goyer and the Nolans knew Bale was well-suited to that kind of character, and wrote his Batman accordingly.

So, to reiterate: Batman vs. Superman is probably going to suck, and it's probably not going to be Ben Affleck's fault, any more than Green Lantern was Ryan Reynolds' fault. It's just that the procedural biases of the human brain make that sort of thing difficult to believe while you're actually watching the movie. But seriously, you don't get to be 2013 Ben Affleck without growing a pretty thick skin about being mocked and despised on the internet. Blame him if it makes you happy. He can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a fucking actor, and Batman will do just fine with or without him.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

They did not cover this shit in Cotillion.

A few weeks ago, Alyssa Rosenberg said something thought-provoking:

I spent a while trying to think of an adequately brief response to this, because I find the sentiment intensely familiar. And yet, it's not as simple as "what she said, but with videogames." I poked and prodded at the whats and whys, but nothing fit easily into 140 characters without seeming entirely off-topic. So I settled for a gesture of enthusiastic agreement:
Meaning that I was going to write my own blog entry about the interplay of politics and aesthetics. I would then, in all likelihood, worry about whether or not it would be gauche to mention Rosenberg when I tweet the link to that entry. This is the problem with being in easy shouting distance of people you happen to admire, who incidentally could make you internet-famous for at least a little while. She responded:
So now I feel like I've just told her what to write about, which is a dick move. I consider issuing a correction--"no, no, my writing is what's important here"--but that doesn't seem like a good idea either. So I resolve to just make it the beginning of an irritating blog post.

While racism, sexism, et al. are as annoying in videogames as in any other medium, they're mostly discussed at the fringes. The mainstream discourse, such as it is, is less about whether videogames are supporting (or just failing to critique) deleterious social norms, as it is about whether or not they cause mental illness and/or violent crime by existing. I'd sort of thought we were done with this debate, since even politicians barely pay lip service to media effects these days, but Sandy Hook Changed Everything, and everything old is new again. In the last week, I've seen two new headlines about publications, one on violent media in general and one on violent videogames in particular. Having poked my head in to see if there's anything mind-blowing, I don't have a lot to say.

I'm bothered by infantile power fantasies and gun fetishization because they're dull. I'm bothered by cynical, unambitious, lowest-common-denominator approaches because they result in bad game design. I don't believe bad games are harmful because they encourage people, sane or otherwise, to do bad things; I believe bad games are harmful because they're an enormous waste of human potential.

Next time you finish a AAA game, count how many designers, artists, and coders you see.

Modern videogame development is a long, expensive process, requiring the concerted cooperation of hundreds of people over a period of several years. To have put that much vitality and creativity into something dull, something cynical, is profoundly sad.

Ian Bogost writes that "[t]he debate about newsgames' value as speech turns out not to be a conflict between support and detraction but rather a conflict between the games themselves and the games as cogs in someone's favorite discourse machine." Distinctions between newsgames and any other intra-medium distinctions we might feel compelled to draw up notwithstanding, talking about value precludes talking about content. When we stop arguing about whether or not a game is dangerous, we have the freedom to write about whether or not that game is interesting, and why.

You might not know it from this particular blog, but I assure you, it's a much more interesting conversation.