the lone and level sands

image courtesy of Little Visuals
image courtesy of Little Visuals

We live in the cloud.

We live in the clouds. Plural. There are so many of them. Three billion of them, give or take, everywhere. Surrounding. Enclosing. Auras of eyes, ghosting over your limbs, trunk, neck and head; there isn’t anywhere they won’t go. There’s a tremendous degree of comfort in this perfected and perfectly complete surveillance – and in fact surveillance is an ugly term, far too politically loaded. Observation and documentation are cold and clinical and don’t even come close to capturing what the experience of this is like.

That was in the early days, though. When this was new enough to be sensual, to actually be an experience. Now we live in the clouds and the clouds are us, and we notice them in the way you might notice your fingers: useful, always there and always doing things, but you aren’t really aware of them unless something goes wrong.

We live in the clouds and they live in us. In us and around and all over and everywhere.

~

Here’s what they look like: very pretty. Stand in a beam of sun and raise your hand, watch a hundred thousand motes of dust dance around your fingers. Hover over your skin, follow you as you move. A few cling to the fine hairs of your forearms and the backs of your hands, your fingers. They drift around each other. Blow and you disturb them but only minutely, and they return to their state of elegant, organic disorder in the time it takes you to draw in the breath you let go.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many angels can dance on the tip of your finger? More, seems like, reflected by glittery nail polish.

We have an exact figure for this, more or less. Flick your fingers one at a rapid time, in a wave, watch it all flow. On the tip of an extended finger there can dance approximately three hundred and fifty drone nanocameras.

You can stand there in that beam of sun until it’s gone, watching this. Watching yourself. Watching yourself being watched.

Not that anyone does.

~

Why?

Why not?

~

Within us there are two impulses and they’re in constant conflict with each other.

To make the things we make as completely a part of us as possible, and to keep them at such a remote distance that there isn’t any more contact than utility requires. We’re not comfortable with blurred lines, and we’re not comfortable with anything that fucks with definitions, categories, ingrained meanings. Persistent over time. We don’t like things that aren’t persistent.

Everyone used to be very uncomfortable with this.

But there’s a tipping point. There’s a technological and documentation event horizon beyond which no one gives a shit anymore. Machines as effortless and complete as memory – more so. Memory is unreliable. These things are so crystalline in their clarity, so wonderfully real.

All of you, all of you seen. Eyes turned inward, a cloud of dancing mirrors; who ever really watches these things, or looks at the things anyone else sends into the ether? But they’re there. Knowing that…

Listen: Look on my works.

But there’s so much beauty in the ephemeral.

Time and bodies are gossamer. Strands intertwined and winding and so intimately entangled. How much more fully in the moment could you possibly be?

~

We breathe them in, on occasion. Swallow them. They’re self-replicating; nothing is lost. But they’re inside you now. Supposedly they break down, but what if they don’t?

Eyes in your blood. Nesting in your heart.

People have dreams about golden cities built inside bloody fists, watching everything always forever now until death do you part.

~

No one is stupid enough to really imagine that any of this will last. That’s not the point. That’s not why.

We used to think that. The clouds did a lot to adjust that way of thinking. If time is gossamer and bodies are the same, if this interweaving is as intimate as it feels, in the end everything falls apart. Is dust.

In the end everything is the clouds.

~

Nothing beside remains.

eyes I dare not meet in dreams

image courtesy of Thomas Mues
image courtesy of Thomas Mues

The staring. A leaf alone in the horrible
leaves. The dead girl. The staring.

– Joshua Beckman, “[The dead girl by the beautiful Bartlett]”

At 2:25 am on a quiet Friday night on a deserted country road in southeastern Pennsylvania, the first dead girl climbed out of her refrigerator.

So the story goes.

~

We never saw the refrigerators. Eventually we gathered that they were everywhere, but we never actually saw them until the dead girls started climbing out of then. Holes in reality, some people said. Interdimensional portals, real Star Trek shit. There’s a tear between these parallel universes and something falls through, and next thing you know there’s a refrigerator in the middle of the road, or the sidewalk, or someone’s lawn, or a football field, or in the bottom of a dry swimming pool, or on the seventh floor balcony of a five star hotel. On the steps of a museum. Basically anywhere.

Later, watching a shaky video taken on someone’s phone, of a refrigerator on a long, straight line of train tracks. Train not far, nighttime, lights blinding. The blare of the thing sends the sound into an angry buzz of distortion. The fridge, just lying there on its side like a coffin. You can’t even tell what it is, except that it’s a box. Or something like that.

It opens. Kicked. Out climbs a broken doll girl, hair stringy and wet, head lolling to one side. Can’t see her face. Don’t need to see her face to know that she’s fucking terrifying. The train somehow looks terrified but physics is a thing, even now, and it can’t stop. She stands there, broken doll head on a broken doll neck, and over the heavy buzz you hear someone screaming holy fucking shit holy shit holy shi-

Even filmed on a shitty cell phone, a train derailed by a dead girl is quite a thing to see.

~

Okay: the official story goes that the first dead girl stood on that deserted country road on that quiet Friday night for quite some time. She stood motionless, listening to the pat-pat sound of her own blood dripping onto the blacktop. Not listening for her heartbeat, which was not there, nor for her breathing – which was not there either. She was listening to other things: wind, leaves, owls, fox scream, sighing of distant cars. It was a quiet night. That’s the story.

The story goes that the dead girl palmed blood out of her eyes and looked down at her sticky fingers, as if considering them carefully – in their context, in their implications. In the slick undeniability of what was still flowing out of her, like inside her was a blood reservoir which would take thousands of years to run dry. Like she was a thing made only to bleed.

And the story also goes that at some point, after studying the fact of her blood to her own satisfaction, the dead girl dropped her hands to her sides and started to walk.

~

We never would have believed, before the dead girls started climbing out of their refrigerators, that people could be literally resurrected by sheer indignation.

Probably it should have been obvious. People have been brought back to life by far more ludicrous means and for far more ridiculous reasons.

~

The story also goes that no one saw the first of the dead girls. The story goes that when they came they came quietly, unannounced, no particular fanfare. The dead girls did not – then – demand witnesses. They weren’t interested in that.

They wanted something else.

Later the dead girls were emerging everywhere, but the first dead girls climbed out of the dark, out of the shadows, out of the lost places and the hidden places and the places of abandonment – out of the places in which one discards old useless refrigerators. Out of the places in which one discards things which have served their purpose and are no longer needed.

The dead girls climbed into the light in junkyards, in vacant lots, in the jumble of shit behind ancient disreputable institutions one might kindly call antique stores. The dead girls climbed out in ravines and ditches and on lonely beaches and in dry riverbeds. Wet riverbeds. The dead girls climbed out into feet and fathoms of water. The dead girls climbed into the air but they also clawed their way out of long-deposited sediment and new mud, like zombies and vampires tearing their way out of graves. The dead girls swam, swam as far as they needed to, and broke the surface like broken doll mermaids.

This is how the story goes. But the story also goes that no one was present at the time, in the first days, so no one is entirely sure how the story got to be there at all. Or at least how it got to be something everyone accepts as truth, which they do.

~

First CNN interview with a dead girl. She’s young. Small. Blond. Before she was a dead girl she was definitely pretty and she’s still pretty, but in the way only dead girls are, which is the kind of pretty that repels instead of attracts, because pretty like that gives you the distinct impression that it hates you and everything you stand for. Dangerous pretty, and not in the kind of dangerous pretty that exists ultimately only to make itself less dangerous.

Dangerous pretty like a carrion goddess. You’ve seen that pretty picking over battlefields and pursuing traitors across continents. You’ve seen that pretty getting ready to fuck your shit up.

Small young blond pretty dead girl. Broken doll. She stands facing the camera with her head tilted slightly to one side. Her face is cut, though not badly. Neat little hole in her brow. The back of her head is a bloody crusted mess. It was fast, what made this dead girl a dead girl, but it wasn’t pretty.

But she is.

Looking at the camera – it’s somewhat cliche to say that someone is looking right into you, but that’s what this is like. The eyes of the dead girls aren’t cloudy with decay, or white and opaque, or black oil slicks. The eyes of the dead girls are clear and hard like diamond bolts, and they stab you. They stab you over and over, slowly, carefully, very precisely.

Can you tell us your name?

The dead girl stares. Anderson Cooper looks nervous.

Can you tell us anything about yourself? Where did you come from?

The dead girl stares.

Can you tell us anything about what’s going on here today?

Behind the dead girl and Anderson Cooper, a long line of dead girls is filing slowly out of the Mid-Manhattan Library, where approximately fifteen hundred refrigerators just came into material existence.

The dead girl stares.

Is there anything at all you’d like to tell us? Anything?

The dead girl stares. She actually doesn’t even seem to register that there’s a camera, that there’s Anderson Cooper, that she’s being asked questions. It’s not that she’s oblivious to everything, or even to anything; she’s not a zombie. Look into that diamond-point stare and you see the most terrifying kind of intelligence possible: the intelligence of someone who understands what happened, who understands what was done to them, who understands everything perfectly. Perfectly like the keen of the edge of a razor blade.

She’s aware. She just doesn’t register, because to her it isn’t noteworthy. She doesn’t care.

Can you tell us what you want?

The dead girl smiles.

~

What they didn’t seem to want, at least initially, was to hurt people. The train thing freaked everyone out when it hit but later as far as anyone was able to determine it hadn’t been done with any particular malicious intent. Mostly because the only other times anything like it happened were times when a dead girl needed to act fast in order to keep from being… well, dead again.

Dead girls wreaked havoc when they felt like someone or something was coming at them. So don’t come at a dead girl. Easy lesson learned quickly.

Dead girls have itchy trigger fingers. They hit back hard. You shouldn’t need to ask about the reasons for that.

~

Something like this, people struggle to find a name for it. The Appearing. The Coming. The Materializations. All proper nouns, all vaguely religious in nature, because how else was this going to go? By naming something we bring it under control, or we think we do – all those stories about summoning and binding magical creatures with their names. But something like this resists naming. Not because of how big it is but because of the sense that some profound and fundamental order is being altered. Something somewhere is being turned upside down. The most basic elements of the stories we told ourselves about everything? A lot of them no longer apply.

A bunch of dead girls got together and decided to break some rules with their own dead bodies.

So the mediums of all the media looked at this Thing, whatever the fuck it was, and they tried to attach names to it. Dead girls on the street, just standing, watching people. Dead girls in bars, in the center of the place, silent. Dead girls on the bus, on the train – they never pay fare. Dead girls at baseball games – just standing there in front of the places selling overpriced hot dogs and bad beer, head slightly cocked, looking at things. None of them have tickets. Dead girls at the movies, at the opera, dead girls drifting through art galleries and libraries.

Very early on, a mass migration of dead girls to LA. Not all together; they went via a variety of transportation methods. Flew. Again, trains. Some went by bus. Some took cars – took them, because again: you don’t go up against a dead girl. Some – as near as anyone was able to tell – just walked.

Steady. Inexorable. The news covered it, because the dead girls were still always news in those days, and while even news made up of a wildly diverse collection of media and organizations usually adopts a specific tone for something and sticks to it, the tone for this coverage was profoundly confused.

Watching dead girls standing in the aisle of a jumbo jet. Refusing to be seated. Staring. Interrupting the progress of wheely carts and access to the tail-end restrooms. This specific dead girl is missing half her face. Blood oozes from the gaping horror. Flight attendants don’t look directly at her, and one of them gets on the PA and apologizes in a slightly shaking voice. There will be no beverage service on this flight.

Cut to the ground below. Twenty-four dead girls have run into a biker gang and confiscated their vehicles. They roar down a red desert road in loose formation, hair of all colors and lengths pulled by the hands of the wind. They’re beautiful, all these dead girls. They’re gorgeous. They take whatever name anyone tries to give this and they hurl it off the tracks like that train.

You get the sense they’re pretty sick of this shit.

~

That’s the thing, actually. There are exceptions: girls with horrific traumatic injuries, girls missing limbs, girls who were clearly burned alive. A lot of those last. But for the most part the flesh of the dead girls tends to be undamaged except for the small evidences of what did them in, and there’s always something about those things which is oddly delicate. Tasteful. Aesthetically pleasing.

As a rule, dead girls tend to leave pretty corpses.

~

Dead girls outside movie studios, the headquarters of TV networks. The houses of well-known writers. Assembled in bloody masses. Broken dolls with their heads cocked to one side. Staring. People were unable to leave their homes. This is how it was. Footage constant even though nothing changed. People started throwing words around like zombie apocalypse but no one got chomped on. The dead girls didn’t want the flesh of the living.

Initially police tried to clear them out, then the National Guard. Casualties were heavy. One of them – a girl with long, lovely brown hair gone reddish with blood – threw a tank. So people basically stopped after that. What was this going to turn into? One of those old horror films about giant radioactive ants? More contemporary ones about giant robots and sea monsters? Maybe we weren’t ready to go quite that far. Maybe you look into the eyes of a dead girl and it feels like your options dry up, and all you can do is be looked at.

You were part of this. We all were. Complicit. Look at yourself with their eyes and you can’t help but see that.

~

Except on a long enough timeframe everything has a half-life. Even the dead.

~

You don’t get used to something like this. It isn’t a matter of getting used to. You incorporate.

Dead girls everywhere. Dead girls on the street, dead girls on public transportation – staring at phones and tablets, reading over shoulders. Dead girls in Starbucks. Dead girls on sitcoms – no one has ever really made a concerted effort to keep them out of movie and TV studios, after a few incidents where people tried and the casualty count wasn’t negligible. Dead girls on Law and Order, and not in the way that phrase usually applies – and man there are a whole fuck of a lot of dead girls on Law and Order. Dead girls in the latest Avengers movie. Rumor has it dead girls surrounded Joss Whedon’s house three months ago and haven’t left, and have decisively resisted all attempts to have them removed. Dead girls vintage-filtered on Instagram.

Dead girls on Tumblr. Dead girls everywhere on Tumblr. Dead girl fandom. There’s a fiercely celebratory aspect to it. Dead girl gifsets with Taylor Swift lyrics. Dead girl fic. Vicarious revenge fantasies that don’t even have to be confined to the realm of fantasy anymore, because, again: Joss Whedon. And he’s by no means the only one.

Dead girls as patron saints, as battle standards. Not everyone is afraid of the dead girls. Not everyone meets that hard dead gaze and looks away.

Some people meet that gaze and see something they’ve been waiting for their entire lives.

~

So in all of this there’s a question, and it’s what happens next.

Because incorporation. Because almost everyone is uncomfortable, but discomfort fades with familiarity, and after a while even fandom tends to lose interest and wander away. Because we forget things. Because the dead girls are still and silent, constant witnesses, and that was unsettling but actually they might turn out to be easier to ignore than we thought. Or that prospect is there. In whispers people consider the idea: could all the pretty dead girls climb back into their refrigerators and go away?

Is that something that could happen?

It seems vanishingly unlikely. Everyone is still more than a little freaked out. But it is an idea, and it’s starting to float around.

We can get used to a lot. It’s happened before.

~

A deserted country road in Southeastern Pennsylvania – deserted except for a dead girl. Quiet night. Silent night except for her blood pat-pating softly onto the pavement. Palming it out of her eyes, staring at her slick, sticky fingers. Dropping her hand limp to her side.

A dead girl stands motionless, looking at nothing. There’s nothing to consider. Nothing to do. The entire world is a stacked deck, and the only card she can play is that she’s dead.

That might or might not be enough.

The dead girl starts to walk.

The Apple Watch’s Invasive Trackers

apple-watch-fitness

Okay, so. Apple’s iOS8 Health app is an issue, at least potentially.

To recap, it’s an issue in significant part – and for the purposes of this – in terms of its effect on people who experience disordered eating and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviors and thoughts. Health trackers in general have the potential to do this, and in fact to be quite harmful. This is primarily because health trackers are highly quantitative in nature and extremely oriented toward the monitoring of details, and obsessive-compulsive tracking is one of the primary symptoms of an eating disorder – and the Health app is a focal point for this kind of monitoring. Though it allows for the entry of data, its primary purpose is to allow better curation of data from other health apps, but it still exists. In fact, it not only exists, but it can’t be removed. It can be hidden, but you – the user – still know it’s there. It will be difficult to ignore even if it can’t be seen. It gnaws. Trust me, things like that do.

It’s additionally an issue because these kinds of thoughts and behaviors aren’t something that people can just choose to stop doing. That’s why it’s a disorder, and it’s one of the most distressing things about this kind of disorder: if you’re presented with a relatively easy way to manifest symptoms, often you will even if you desperately don’t want to:

One of the nastiest things about OCD symptoms – and one of the most difficult to understand for people who haven’t experienced them – is the fact that a brain with this kind of chemical imbalance can and will make you do things you don’t want to do. That’s what “compulsive” means. Things you know you shouldn’t do, that will hurt you. When it’s at its worst it’s almost impossible to fight, and it’s painful and frightening.

Even if you don’t do anything, you’re still thinking about it. Over and over, obsessively. Thoughts are harmful, often physically. Thoughts themselves can trigger a relapse in someone in recovery from these kinds of disorders.

So now there’s the Apple watch, and some things have been added that are even more problematic.

Specifically, there are some shiny new apps. There’s a workout app, which naturally allows one to input goals and plans for physical exercise and track their progress, but the real kicker here is the activity app, which tracks almost every important aspect of the user’s regular physical activity through the day: the number of calories burned, the amount of time spent in motion, and a reminder to move when one has been stationary for a certain amount of time.

So what? So: the app is active all day. Or it possesses that capability. If we conceive of this kind of tracking as invasive for people with particular disorders – and remember that with these kinds of disorders something can be invasive simply by being there – then tracking that functions all day, tracking everything one does, is invasive to the nth degree.

It’s important to note here that it’s not only thoughts that matter in this context, for someone using this specific device. Concepts also matter. Even if someone else might not find the very prospect of this kind of app upsetting, someone who deals with the world this way might very well be upset by it. Upset is probably not a strong enough word. People are often skeptical about “triggers”, about people who are triggered by things – especially things generally seen as innocuous – but they’re real and they’re legitimate.

This is a health tracking app that’s locked into a device and is capable of constantly measuring just about meaningful everything you do, in terms of Apple’s standard of “health”. Yeah, that’s a problem.

Okay, just don’t buy an Apple Watch. But the problem there is that – as with the original Health app – Apple wasn’t thinking about this. The idea that someone might want to buy an Apple Watch but feel unable to do so because of disordered thoughts and behaviors simply wasn’t on the designers’ radar. They made these apps for a generalized default person with a generalized default attitude toward a generalized default idea of what”health” means. At the very least, design that essentially erases an entire category of potential users is probably worth some consideration. As Selena Larson points out in the Kernel article linked above:

Fitness apps and health trackers aren’t inherently bad or good. They’re tools that can used in different ways and come with their own built-in blind spots and biases. Apple’s decision to force Health onto iOS 8 devices could endanger those who have a compulsion to track themselves already. But for the great majority of people, monitoring their health should pose no harm.

Apple sees the world a certain way and designs their products accordingly. No, I’m not faulting them for that. But I do want to call attention to it, because – like all ableist design – it stands out as part of a much larger set of cultural and social marginalizing processes. Apple’s focus is on the “majority”. We need to ask whether that’s all we should expect, or whether better and more accessible might be possible, and what greater effects that better design might have.

But there’s another interesting question here, and it’s the degree to which an Apple Watch truly differs from an iPhone, in terms of how one might use it. Tom Greene argues:

For the Apple Watch to take off, it will need to carve out a distinct value proposition that a smartphone alone cannot deliver. After all, we all pretty much “wear” our smartphones everywhere we go. The combination of Apple’s iPhone 6 technology, coupled with my Withings products seem to make the health-related aspects of Apple Watch unnecessary.

What’s the difference, in practical design terms, between a watch on your wrist and something you carry around? This raises even bigger questions about physical relationships with physical devices, in terms of proximity and how – in an embodied sense – we experience what are essentially cases for apps.

What’s the difference between a watch case and a smartphone case? Does the packaging itself matter? How?

I think these are questions for another post. But I wanted to leave them here, because I don’t think we can consider the design of an app without – at least to some degree – considering the physical thing the app rides around in.

Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

#TtW15’s Anti-Harassment Statement and You

photo by Aaron Thompson
photo by Aaron Thompson

For last year’s iteration of Theorizing the Web, we took a new step in our development as a conference and produced an anti-harassment statement.

We felt it was important, for a number of reasons. It’s not a matter of feeling; it is important. It seems like – fortunately – this is an issue to which more and more conferences and conventions are paying attention. There’s more in the way of an ongoing discussion than there once was. There’s a growing recognition that these kinds of stands need to be taken and these kinds of explicit guidelines need to be established in order to make spaces safe for all attendees – or at least to try to make those spaces as safe as possible.

Because here’s the thing: these kinds of policies/statements are always going to be works in progress. They’re never going to be finished. They’re going to be subject to the forces and pressures of real-world application, and as such they’re going to be tossed into situations for which they were written but for which they frequently weren’t specifically designed. There are always things you don’t anticipate. Especially if you’re coming from a place of privilege, which – among other things – stunts the growth of the imagination. It just does. It hurts one’s ability to prepare.

So last year we had an anti-harassment statement. We put it online before the conference and tried to call people’s attention to it. We solicited and gratefully listened to a number of extraordinarily helpful comments and criticisms. We needed that help. We couldn’t do that alone.

We still need that help, because we still can’t do this alone.

Last year the statement was tested. I’m not going to go into the details now, but I invite you to read that post so you have some sense of what the process was like. This year it might very well be tested again. So we want to make sure it’s as clear and strong a statement as it can possibly be.

Here it is:

anti-harassment statement

In light of recent public conversations spurred by incidents at other conferences, and in the spirit of being both proactive and inclusive, it is important that we communicate the Organizing Committee’s commitment to providing a harassment-free space for participants of all races, gender and trans statuses, sexual orientations, physical abilities, physical appearances, body sizes, and beliefs. Harassment includes, but is not limited to: deliberate intimidation; stalking; unwanted photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and unwelcome sexual attention. We ask you, as participants, to be mindful of how you interact with others—and to remember that harassment isn’t about what you intend, but about how your words or actions are received.

In keeping with a central theme of Theorizing the Web, we also want to remind you that what is said online is just as “real” as what is said verbally.

By attending Theorizing the Web, you agree to maintain and support our conference as a harassment-free space. If you feel that someone has harassed you or otherwise treated you inappropriately, or you feel you have witnessed inappropriate or harassing behavior, please alert any member of the Organizing Committee (identifiable by our badges; you can also find photos of all Committee members on our “Participants” page). If an attendee engages in harassing behavior, the conference organizers may take any lawful action we deem appropriate, including but not limited to warning the offender or asking the offender to leave the conference. We welcome your feedback, and we thank you for working with us to make this a safe, enjoyable, and welcoming experience for everyone who participates.

If you have any comments, concerns, any suggestions for ways in which we can make this thing better, please get in touch with us here or in the comments below.

We’re going to do all we can to make this year’s Theorizing the Web a safe space for everyone. Thanks so much.

Killing NPCs and Rethinking “Fun”

aaaaah so fun
aaaaah so fun tho

One of the more frankly disturbing things I’ve read about video games recently wasn’t about sexism/misogyny but was instead about the NPCs (non-player characters) inserted into a game for a player to murder.

The piece in question was on the game Battlefield Hardline, and it contained quotes from the game’s makers regarding the thought that went into the presence and creation and – in particular – the dialogue of enemy NPCs in the game. As games have become more complex and voice acting has become more of a thing on which some focus is placed when a game is in development, there naturally arises the question of what these people are actually going to be saying. This leads to additional questions: Is the dialogue going to be more informative than anything else? Will there be any actual characterization of these people who are, after all, there largely to be killed by the player and whose lives will therefore be cut (tragically) short? Are these mustache-twirling villains, or are they just people?

And what do those decisions end up meaning for player experience?

This is actually a pretty complicated set of questions for this last reason, because of what it suggests about how the player feels about the NPCs they kill, and about the emotional weight of that killing. Think about this for a second: players in these kinds of games are frequently – essentially – mass murderers who proceed through the game by slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds if not thousands upon thousands of NPCs. Not all of these killings are even strictly speaking necessary. When a game has a significant stealth component – allowing a player to sneak by an NPC or merely render them unconscious – killing is no longer needed in order to proceed through the game.

But games often make killing fun.

When I played Dishonored, I played it through to the end more than once, not just because more than one ending was possible but because different approaches were possible and each was its own kind of fun. There was a lot of strategy and skill and awareness of environment and careful planning involved in the stealth approach – do I shoot that guard with a tranquilizer dart or chokehold him into unconsciousness? What route through this building allows me to avoid the maximum number of NPCs? How can I most effectively hide myself? How can I make use of the timing of NPC movements to my best advantage?

And then when I played it via the combat/killing-heavy approach, I got to knife dudes in the neck and summon swarms of rats to eat them alive.

That was rad.

I was killing NPCs – people, frankly, even if not fully-fledged and realized at all – in absolutely horrific ways and it was so damn fun. It was fun because it was designed to be, and I didn’t think about it or feel a single shred of remorse because the game didn’t encourage me to do so.

Part of why this is worth thinking about – beyond primitive hand-wringing won’t someone think of the children ethical concerns – is because of what killing actually is in video games. Critic Erik Kain noted that “killing people in video games is actually just solving moving puzzles”. It’s something you need to do in order to progress, which is how you play what a lot of people are still likely to think of as a “video game” (leaving aside all the games which aren’t about that at all, such as Flower, The Stanley Parable, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Gone Home and Dear Esther, to name a few of my personal favorites). As such, a lot of the time it doesn’t even really feel like killing. When I play Call of Duty it doesn’t feel like violence to me in any real, visceral sense (I think a lot of this may also be that the Call of Duty series is excellently put together and really not very good).

But killing is also frequently intended and designed to be fun. It’s about creative, innovative ways of destroying humanoid bodies. I’m not a hand-wringer – I really enjoy killing people with rats, for Christ’s sake – but I don’t think that can be ignored.

Underpinning this is the commonly-held idea that games aren’t fun if they make a player pause and stop ignoring this. If they make a player consider the emotional and ethical weight of what they’re actually doing. Because if you did that, wouldn’t you feel bad? Wouldn’t you stop enjoying the game as much?

Rob Auten, writer for Battlefield Hardline, was pretty blunt about this, as a consequence of making an NPC too fully human:

Part of the cops and robbers fantasy is moving among the bad guys and being in the same room. So you have an opportunity to hear more from them. In some cases we made them too charming and people felt bad about shooting them or wanted to hang out with them instead of fighting them and that is no good.

(Personal aside: As a self-identified “gamer”, I think this is a gross idea far too commonly held. Sometimes I do just want to kill people with rats, but God forbid you emotionally engage with your thing.)

One of the games which has taken this idea directly to task – and one of my favorite games of all time and a game which I’ve written about a lot – is Spec Ops: The Line, which not only makes the people you’re killing other American soldiers – albeit soldiers who, as far as you know, have gone rogue – but allows you to listen in on conversations that approach the heartbreaking… and then gives you no choice about whether or not you will kill these people.

At one point in the game I crouched in cover and listened to two of these guys talk about how peaceful things were at that moment, and how, though things got ugly a lot of the time, that peace reminded them of what they were really fighting for.

Then I shot them in the head.

I had to. There was no stealth option there, and I needed to kill them to proceed to the next point in the game.

Reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw observed in a column:

[Call of Duty:] Modern Warfare got into the habit of making a shocking moment that illustrated the ruthlessness of the enemy and the resources at their disposal. It’s supposed to make you hate and fear them…The Spec Ops shocking moment [dropping white phosphorus on civilians], contrarily, is designed to make you hate yourself, and fear the things that you are capable of.

That is not “fun.”

But I also think it’s really good. And I enjoyed it, in terms of the intensity of what it made me feel.

The thing is that, at least with most AAA mainstream games, if the primary concern is this particular kind of “fun”, we’re going to continue to see exactly the convention that The Line was trying to subvert.

So I think we need to rethink the idea of “fun”.

If “fun” is enjoyment, I think we can think of a lot of other stuff in other mediums that we enjoy that doesn’t fall in line with this idea of “fun”. A lot of the stuff I like is not “fun”. I really enjoy Lars von Trier films. Those are not “fun”. I really enjoy books wherein everything terrible happens and my heart gets ripped out and eaten in front of me. Not “fun”. The Wire is not “fun”, at least not most of the time. The National is not “fun” music. Most of the fiction I write is not “fun”.

Okay, that’s me, I’m weird. But those things wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a lot of other people like me.

I want to suggest that this is a lot of why video games are generally – still – seen as juvenile by a lot of people: the attitudes toward emotion that underpin most of the big ones haven’t outgrown this idea of “fun” and begun to experiment with what fun can actually mean in terms of what we enjoy consuming.

The other thing is that big budget AAA games, while still what often get the most attention – aren’t the full picture, and a lot of stuff outside that bubble is doing exactly that. The games I mentioned above, which I really like? Flower is fun, and it also makes me cry every time I play it. Amnesia is a giant exercise in NOPE, and tremendously fun. The Stanley Parable is fun and ridiculously funny, but it’s also a bit of a mind-fuck and gently emotionally abusive at times. Gone Home is softly beautiful and sad. Dear Esther is one of those things that does the whole heart-ripping-eating business.

So this stuff is out there. More and more of it all the time. But that idea of “fun” persists, and I would like it to please stop being so unquestioningly accepted as it is there.

I still really like killing people with rats, though.

Sarah promises to not kill you with rats on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Player Engagement and Shared Space (ugh, there are people here)

THE HELL IS THIS
WHAT THE HELL IS THIS

So I’m basically destroying my gamer cred here – to the extent that I had any, which is probably precisely not at all – by admitting that until this week I hadn’t yet played Destiny.

Look, I just hadn’t, okay? Leave me alone.

(Don’t worry, it gets a lot worse.)

Anyway, I had some free time so I dove into the demo. Many of the more critical (in the more academic sense, not the “this sucks” sense) reviews I had barely skimmed said it was both beautiful and ultimately pretty soulless, which I found – at least from the demo – to be true. But I can get behind a soulless game. I can even get behind a “walking simulator with stuff”. Sometimes I want to Not Think About Things in a fairly aggressive fashion.

So I was having fun. I was running around shooting things from cover and knifing people in the neck and hanging out with a floating metal eyeball with the voice of Peter Dinklage. I was playing by myself, because almost without exception I play video games alone in single-player mode, because I don’t particularly like people (and among other things, in all seriousness, online co-op gaming is not a safe space for me and I shouldn’t have to go into why).

And then I got to The City (the last safe human city because evil aliens blah blah destroy everything for Reasons blah blah look just don’t think about it too hard) to gear up and head back out for more shooting and knifing, and…

Ugh. There were people there.

Quipping aside, it really was rather jarring. Other players were present in the space with me, their screen names visible above their heads. I think it was the fact that it was unexpected that was the most jarring, because if I actually went in knowing a thing or two about Destiny aside from the fact that it was supposed to be pretty and soulless I would have seen it coming (like… significant parts of it are massively-multiplayer environments and that’s sort of the point of the game; I somehow managed to go in knowing effing nothing about this game, it’s ridiculous and I have no idea how it happened and I am so goddamn ashamed of myself). But I’m interested in why else it was jarring, and I think it has to do with how I as a player interact with the gamespace in both an emotional/physical way.

For me, the significant thing was that I wasn’t forced to interact with any of those players, at least not there. I was free to ignore them, and I did. But they annoyed me. I was annoyed at them for being there at all. The space no longer felt like my space because I was sharing it with people, and I didn’t feel as though I had consented to doing so (HOW DID I NOT KNOW THIS GOING IN, HOW). The players themselves had avatars the same as my own, and if not for the floating screen names I wouldn’t have known they were other players at all. In terms of my formal interaction with the game at that point, nothing was affected and nothing changed. My active play wasn’t altered. I acted as I would have done if I had been there “alone”.

But I felt so differently about it. I felt disconnected. I felt thrown out of the world in which I had been slowly immersing myself. Simply by virtue of knowing those other people were there.

Among other things, I think this is evidence that – jumping off a debate about “formalism” in game studies that I’ve been reading about recently, though in certain elements it’s a fairly old argument – when we’re examining something like play in a game, we can’t merely adhere to what a lot of people would call a classic formalist approach to gaming: that what matters most in terms of the analysis of a game is what you do in it. When you’re not doing something, you’re not playing the game. Simply being stationary in the environment, listening to it and looking at it, isn’t actually engaging with the game at all.

So clearly a problem here is how we define doing.

If the only thing that mattered in Destiny was the logistics of how I ran around and shot things from cover and knifed people in the neck, the presence of other players with whom I was not obligated to interact in any way shouldn’t have bothered me at all.

But I interact with these spaces emotionally. I want them to be mine. I don’t like to share. To arrive in one and have that not be the case made it harder for me – for whatever bizarre psychological reason – to immerse myself.

I feel sorta ridiculous even admitting that any of this happened, but it did and it’s… Yeah, it’s a thing.

I knew this, of course. I know I interact in an active way with video games even when I’m playing Journey and I’m just standing there looking at sand and literally crying because the score is so beautiful. I’m present in that space, I’m experiencing it as as space, and in fact one of the reasons why I sometimes stop “playing” to look at and listen to things in the environment is because my interaction with the game has become so intensely visceral.

So I’m not really even saying anything new here. A number of game studies scholars have pretty much said all of this. It just hit me again, freshly: how we interact with video games is so messy and complicated, because we’re messy and complicated and often resist easy analysis. I came at the mechanics of this specific game (KNOWING NOTHING, HOW DID THAT EVEN HAPPEN) with my own specific way of being in and feeling in the space of a game, and my experience of that space was complex and particular to me. That’s suggestive about how we need to think about the ways in which players experience games… in general.

Ugh. People.

 

Sarah doesn’t like you on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

the only life you could save

image courtesy of Eduardo Mueses
image courtesy of Eduardo Mueses

A couple of days ago I finished writing a short story and burst into tears.

Anyone who knows me knows I have a lot of emotions. The point of this story is the story.

It started out as a story about a mysterious plague of suicides documented and shared via social media, which I seized on just because it resonated for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing something profoundly troubling. What it became was a story about me, about what the last year has been like, about what the last six years have been like – in a graduate program regarding which I seem to be moving from feelings of ambivalence to outright anger and resentment – and really what it’s been like since we first started using these technologies to connect with each other.

It’s about being a Millennial and what being a Millennial is like right now, all the clickbait headlines and ridiculous thinkpieces aside. It’s about fear and anger and loneliness, hopelessness.

It’s also about courage, and about the networks and technologies that allow us to take care of each other, especially when no one else is really able to.

Here’s the thing about things like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr – especially those two latter for me, in part because they aren’t subject to the same kind of emotional algorithmic filtering. They allow us to share information and organize, sure. They help facilitate political action. They’re exploited by the powerful and the marginalized alike. They alter how we move through the world, how we understand ourselves and each other, how we understand the past and the present and the future. Okay, sure; all of those things.

But I look back on everything that’s happened to me, my life with these things, and what I think I see more clearly than anything else is that they’ve allowed us to take care of each other.

It’s not perfect. It’s not ideal. It is sure as hell not evenly distributed. It’s not the same for everyone, because no one is exactly the same. But it’s something. It’s an important thing. Sometimes it’s the only thing.

It’s very difficult to explain that to people who haven’t experienced it. Those people tend to be the same people devaluing these things, trying to draw distinctions between them and real connection. Those people also tend to be the people who set a lot of the popular discourse around this stuff. Maybe our generation won’t do that; probably we’ll find something else with which to do the same thing. It sort of seems to be what we do.

But in the meantime we do this. We create these spaces, and while we do them with code written by other people, and what we do is therefore constrained by that code, we still have power to make and make use. We construct our own languages and our own customs, our own mythologies. We beat paths to each other; we pave roads. It’s not always peaceful or simple; it’s as messy and hurtful and complex as the “real” world.

That’s why it’s real.

But we take care of each other.

So I was sitting there on the couch at one in the morning, looking at this story and weeping and trying to understand exactly why, and all I could take from it was the feeling that I was looking at something I understood, that many people I know understand, which means something and is important but which is a little like a child’s secret country that fades when we grow up. That can’t last. Neither contacts nor code are endlessly sustainable. Networks decay and nodes fade into obscurity, wink out of existence one by one.

This is not about age, but it is about time.

What I think is that when we write about these things, when we write about these technologies and these spaces and what it means to live there, we sometimes have a tendency to oversimplify in the service of analysis. Which is fine; analysis is for a necessary thing and it does a necessary job. But when I’m sitting there crying over a goddamn story I just wrote, what I think is that this is all more complicated that I have the most remote possible prayer of ever being able to explain in a journal article or a conference presentation. What I can say about it with absolute certainty is that it is.

We live here until we don’t anymore.

All we ever have is each other.

I loved those people. I loved every one of them. The people I never met. The people whose names and faces I never knew until I was watching them kill themselves. The people who mourned for them and invited me to mourn with them. We said we loved each other. We all said it. Over and over. Like hands across a chasm, groping in the dark. Trying to hold on. Knowing that, in the end, we probably couldn’t save anyone. All we could do was be there until they were gone, and be with whoever was left.

I remember how it was. I remember it. I remember it so well. I’m drowning in remembering.

Not very shareable.

I love you. I love you.

I love you.

Writing as an exclusive aesthetic (it is)

image courtesy of matsuyuki
image courtesy of matsuyuki

I was doing a post on writing for my author blog, and I wanted an image for it, so off to the Flickr Creative Commons search I went. I searched the “writing’ keyword. Almost all of what I got back was some version of the above. Almost all of the rest of it was just random stuff. There were a few shots of laptops or computers but they nearly always also prominantly included notebooks and pens/pencils. Do a Google image search for “writing” and you get the same damn thing. All very attractive photos of pens and hands and often lovely, swooping script.

I do not write that way.

I can’t write that way.

I have a disability called dysgraphia, which manifests – among other ways – as severe difficulty in writing on paper. It involves both impaired motor function/coordination and a form of dyslexia in terms of the production of words. It’s impossible for me to hold a writing implement “correctly”. I get horrible hand cramps. My handwriting itself is illegible. I often get letters or words in the wrong order. Consistent use of capital letters? Hahaha no.

When I write on a keyboard all of that goes away and everything flows wonderfully. I couldn’t write without a keyboard. Without a keyboard, I am probably not a writer at all.

Why does this matter? It matters because we aestheticize the visual process and tools of writing as a part of the process of romanticizing it (which is sorta bullshit anyway). In so doing, we legitimize certain kinds of writing while at the same time delegitimizing others and even rendering them invisible. Most of the time I don’t think we intend to do that, just like we don’t intend to do most things like that. We just have a fixed idea of what Writing is and everything we attach to that idea reinforces it.

Okay, but why does it matter? Well, to start with, it’s at least vaguely ableist simply because it ignores the existence of people like me, and others who for one reason or another can’t depend on physical handwriting to produce words, and that’s already a toxic cultural process. Not a fan of anything which contributes to it.

But it also matters, I think, because it’s yet another symptom of our general tendency to (still) privilege the non-digital over the digital. There’s something about words produced on paper (preferably attractive paper with an attractive fountain pen, or even a quill for God’s sake and I’m not really kidding about that last) which is more real because of where it is and how it’s being done. My kind of writing? Unreal, and not just because of the aesthetic. And in fact, the aesthetic is part of what reinforces the idea of what’s real in this case. It’s also associated with the ways in which a tremendous amount of people still seem to feel that paper books are more real and more legitimate than ebooks, despite ebooks being enormously popular.

And I think a huge number of us now write on keyboards.

Is this really harmful to me? Immediately, no. More than anything it’s annoying. But looking at that stream of images, it was difficult to miss, and it was also difficult to miss what it meant.

 

Sarah writes on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

The Keurig coffee DRM thing: Yeah, that didn’t go so well

image credit: KeurigHack
image credit: KeurigHack. also, wow, even the machine talks to you like a jerk

A quick update regarding Keurig instituting the coffee maker form of Digital Rights Management in their products: Not so great for Keurig.

“It is a HUGE SHAME that the company decided to remove the ability to use your own coffee grounds in the home brew k-cup. …They should have just said we made these changes so our products would sell more so we could make a bigger profit,” reads a typical review. “They took a potentially killer machine and added horrible DRM – a rights management system, in the greedy attempt to get all other coffee pod manufacturers to pay them so their pods work,” reads another of the hundreds of one-star reviews. Many lamented the ability to give no stars. If you Google “Keurig 2.0,” the first thing that autocompletes is “hack.”

There’s not a tremendous amount that’s surprising about this, and I frankly don’t have much to add that I didn’t say back then, or that anyone else hasn’t already said about this. The Verge article is especially perceptive in terms of pointing out that the fact that this is about coffee is in itself significant; the kind of people who would probably buy a Keurig are people who probably have a particular relationship with this kind of coffee and are looking for a particular kind of coffee experience. Easy, convenient – which also indicates a versatility which DRM of any kind destroys.

DRM constrains use, which is the enemy of the versatile. It takes products and technologies and devices that might be fabulously nimble, highly adaptable, and renders them useful within a very narrow range of functionality. My husband recently jailbroke his iPhone; I knew about a lot of the features that allowed one to institute, and I understood the general culture behind tearing down the walls around Apple’s pristine garden, but it was still remarkable to see what that process turned the iPhone into: something far more useful and far more powerful than Apple was permitting it to be. Far more friendly.

The kind of DRM Keurig was putting in place is a natural extension of the control pretty much all companies who produce technology of any kind try to maintain over how those devices are used. It’s not unusual and there should be nothing surprising about it. I’ve written somewhat depressingly about what I’ve perceived as the inevitability of this kind of control, especially as it becomes both less visible and more normalized, but I’ve somewhat revised that view. Not just because of the kind of loud annoyance that seems to arise every time something like this happens and the messages that kind of loud annoyance sends, but also because of the sheer – almost joyful – creativity involved in the idea of hacking your coffeemaker. No one likes having to do something like that, and the necessity itself is ridiculous, but there’s something about that kind of resistance I find very satisfying.

Again: nothing particularly new about the observation that there are opportunities for both the exertion of control and the act of resistance in situations like this – political and commercial and whatever, everything in between. But yeah, I kind of see some connections to be drawn between resisting an asshole coffemaker company and resisting an oppressive political regime. If you tilt your head and squint. A bit.

And I’m pleased that Keurig paid for being stupid about this. That’s always satisfying too.

 

Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

 

Poetweet: Tiny Meanings in Large Coherence

la-et-jc-poetweet-a-website-that-turns-tweets-into-poetry-20150126

Quiet, please, for Art.

ACTUAL BEST
by Sunny Moraine

Fabulously awesome, congratulations
That wouldn’t be weird, right?
Put up with for a lot of reasons

Me. It also still has no title.
I may be able to help you out
Gorgeous. Sorta choked up a little.

Might fly better if it has a name.

Dudes are just not even human.

When I decided to try to throw something together about Poetweet it went without saying that I’d have to see what it scraped together out of me (note the “me”; I used that word without thinking about it and we’ll return to that shortly). And of course, looking at it, I’m making instinctive sense of it. I recognize those as my words, and arranged in that fashion they do indeed seem to make a kind of sense. Further, it’s a pleasurable kind of sense – doofy, a little ridiculous, a little nonsensical in spite of itself, but I read and I (granted the bias) am all like hey, I kinda like that person.

Which is actually somewhat remarkable considering how difficult it can be to like oneself.

For those who don’t know – and I’ve had my head deep in writing and editing so I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of it either until Nathan Jurgenson brought it to my attention this morning – Poetweet is a bot which scrapes your Twitter account for stuff and arranges it into one of three different poetic styles (I went with Indriso because “new free and literary theory” sounded deep and vaguely edgy and sonnets are so old and done at this point and who the hell wants a French love poem I ask you). The response to this appears to range from delighted amusement to a general sense that there really is a kind of coherence to be found in it, that out of the noise a signal emerges. There are a few things here which I feel are worth some brief attention.

First, this is a kind of bot-output that is fundamentally self-centered: you enter data about yourself, you get back a thing about yourself. This isn’t new – I was doing quizzes to find out which character from The X-Files I was back in my Livejournal days – and in fact that’s sort of the point; the web by its very nature is extremely well suited to this kind of thing. The thing about this kind of output is that it is at once emotionally positive in nature – or it aims to be – and it functions as a way to see yourself from a slightly different perspective, to see you from the point of view of something which is not quite you, and which supposedly has no biases or agenda regarding what it tells you. This latter acts to enhance the pleasure you’re already deriving from the content of the output itself. It even (possibly a bit tongue-in-cheek) promises to give you a poem which possess significant meaningful meaning in and of itself, with phrases like “analyzing your deepest feelings” and “tracking the data of your inspiration”.

(Data as inspiration is a post in itself, but it is not this one)

In short, this practice is persistent because on a very deep level we like it. It’s a kind of positive reinforcement of pre-existing narcissism (I don’t think that’s all it is, but that’s what I’m focusing on).

But what about the idea of getting signal out of noise? What is it about doing that which might be pleasurable?

A number of people have already drawn a comparison between Poetweet and @Horse_ebooks. As was observed extensively around the time that account was outed as not the result of randomness but something which operated according to the conscious intentions of human beings, we liked the idea that @Horse_ebooks was nothing more than a “mindless” algorithm. We loved the idea that out of noise and chaos could come this:

horse-ebooksAnd what was most important about that – at least for a lot of people – was the idea that we could pull coherence out of total incoherence. We find recognizable patterns deeply comforting, and I think we particularly find them comforting when we see them where we don’t expect to. A significant component of delight is surprise.

So I think the same pleasurable emotional process is going on, with some important differences. First, most people’s tweets do make sense, and they are temporally coherent in aggregate, because they are one way in which someone’s own narrative – and self-narrative – emerges, is produced, and is reinforced. So what we have here is not noise, simply an unmanageable amount of coherence.

And what Poetweet does is take that enormous flood of coherence and cut it down to something neat and small, and we get to see what sense comes out of it. Of course there would be sense. There was sense from the beginning.

But the other significant difference is the orientation of the thing. @Horse_ebooks was almost entirely external; we looked at it from the inside out, and while we took what we found and internalized it, it was not a funhouse mirror image of us, at least not in the same way. @Horse_ebooks was about finding a meaningful signal in a universe full of meaningless noise. Poetweet is about finding a single, clear, emotionally positive and aesthetically pleasing signal in a much larger and messier collection of coherent information.

If anything, the removal of content from its context makes it less coherent. Hence the comparison to a funhouse mirror.

So what’s the point? Simply that it’s interesting what people will do to find meaning in themselves and in the world around them, where they’ll go for that meaning, and what they’ll make of that meaning when they find it. It is, for better or worse, something we deeply need. And we very much need to like what we find.

Play us off, Poetweet.

Even human
by Sunny Moraine

That wouldn’t be weird, right?
A Today Totally Didn’t Suck feast
In part of “We Have Always Fought”

A HUNDRED THOUSAND PERCENT BETTER
Seeing this story so off it goes
I’m gonna buy some body glitter

Tw for so much general grossness

To the Prevent Cancer Foundation

Sarah is possessed of deep and profound meaning on – where else – Twitter: @dynamicsymmetry