Nov 27 2010

Death And Infrastructure: Thrilling Wonder Stories II

The two hour delay I faced getting into central London yesterday seemed somehow thematic of the day. A “suspected fatality” somewhere on the Paddington to Swansea rail line had brought things to a standstill. (Surely someone is dead or not? Were they nervously poking the suspected corpse with a stick to see if it was actually a sleeping tramp that would leap up and roar at them? Or was the phrasing designed to not imply definite tragedy, therefore saving us the concern about the loss of a life?) Death and infrastructure: key themes for the Thrilling Wonder Stories II, a sprawling multi-disciplinary event at the Architecture Association.

I arrived with seconds to spare, just as the AA bossman Brett Steele began to talk about the inability of architecture to see through its grand designs for the future. (I sat down in an opened alcove – a peculiar set up that one of the speakers would later point out meant that one half of the audience sat in light, and the other in darkness.) Steele set up the day by observing that visions of the future almost always end up scattered through the layered reality of the past. There is no blank slate, no matter how confidently great thinkers might predict it. The concrete towers that range across London a mark out of that sort of vision – fragments of one future, one way of looking at the future, at the city – and even the building we were in: once an elegant town house, now a bustling educational facility, bears the affect of different ways of understanding its own existence. So the stage was set for some fresh speculations – not necessarily to predict the future, or even say anything credible about it, but to make sure that the idea of the future was entertained, and that it was entertaining.

The day was divided up into small panels, each consisting of a number of individual presentations, illustrated by slides and videos which appeared on a number of screens around the room. The first panel was “Counterfeit Archaeologies”. BLDGBLOG editor Geoff Manaugh started the events proper as a double-act with his wife Nicola Twilley. Their method – one of offbeat or accidental suppositions blossoming into wider speculations – was filled with the kind of material that has made their blogging so interesting. They talked about the titular counterfeit archaeologies (faked fossils, simulated plastic stratification), as well as anti-archaeologies, simulated archaeologies. The myth of a “cow tunnel” into the slaughterhouses of Manhattan, the idea of fabricating fossils to test theories about deep time, and how to build something that would deter archaeology. All themes that percolate through Manaugh’s interests. Manaugh and Twilley raised typically interesting conceits and play-on-ideas from current research: could bees be made to produce concrete in the manner of living 3D-printers? Manaugh outlined the idea of “animal printheads”, speculating that we could engineer social animals to build or modify our buildings by manipulating their natural systems – modified spiders printing out steel for new superstructures. All great stuff.

Next up were “design provocateurs” Dunne & Raby, who were working with similar material, albeit in a way that was presented rather strangely. I think I rather missed the point of their presentation, but they showed a series of designs for externalised digestive tracts for humans – suggesting that people could soon be modified to “forage” rather than relying the traditional modification of land and vegetation that we rely on in farming. A related idea saw them speculating that policing could be handled casually if mind-reading bazookas were deployed by the community at large. They explained how, having designed this stuff, they brought in a writer to fill out the backstories – a writer who humanised ideas that might otherwise have seemed rather alien. These ideas could happen, they seemed to be saying, and would create tensions if they did do. Tensions would create stories. It chimed with the narrative theme of the day, which was something all the speakers seemed to touch on, as if it was the nature of story that somehow connected or delivered their work through to usefulness.

The second panel, Cautionary Tales, consisted of two authors and an artist. The first author was Jeff Vandermeer, who explained how his book Finch – in which his fantasy city “Ambergris” reaches parity with the 20th century real world and is then colonised and occupied by a race of fungal intelligences – acts as a kind of “non-preachy” analogy for failed states and occupations in our own reality. Following him was Will Self, who was typically awesome and droll, grabbing the biggest laugh of the day, and also the most sinister reading. His piece on leaping to his death from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco seemed fine-tuned for the audience, but also for making a point about the ideas of the day. Psychogeography, for Self, is often a consideration of what buildings demand of us – his usual example of the airports demanding calm and boredom, despite the fact that we are about to be hurled across continents at 600mph, was also rolled out to supplement the tall tale from the bridge. Third to this panel was Paul Duffield, the artist on Freakangels, who described his personal project, Signal. This wordless graphic work was inspired by both the cosmic perspectives of Carl Sagan and the ongoing search for life at SETI. Signal is a short story about the last man alive searching for that signal from other life under the light of a “galaxy rise”. Does he find it? Perhaps. His transformation into a crane/heron delivers a cryptic ending. Duffield struggled a bit in the Q&A, but he was so close to making the point that he had presumably intended to make, which was that mathematics, which is the universal language we would probably use as a starting point for contact with extraterrestrial life, was also the thing that underwrites much of graphic art, since it is interwoven into the geometries that Duffield uses on the page.

(I’ve actually been thinking a lot about SETI recently. I wonder if it should be abandoned because of the potential for melancholy. It seems to me that we’re only ever likely to pick up a signal from some far away, long-dead civilisation, and then have to listen to it, possibly for centuries, without being able to do anything about it. On the one hand it could mean we aren’t “alone” in the universe, but perhaps it would only amplify our isolation. Here we are, trapped in our tower, able to catch glimpses of the living world outside and yet never touch it, never let it know we exist… We could end up stuck here on Earth, in love with a teeming universe that never bothers to acknowledge our existence.)

The third panel was Near Futures. A little closer to home for me – and yet still somehow alien by virtue of being an Xbox game – was the opening demonstration of Child Of Eden by Ubisoft. Visually spectacular, it is nevertheless Rez with motion control. I can see the appeal of it, but this isn’t what is exciting about games for me. Projects like this feel like a hangover from the 1980s, a sort of realised dream of what shoot ‘em ups could be, though the format ends feeling archaic even under the guise of this fresh technology. Also on this panel was the phenomenal Alex Rutterford, a film-maker responsible for videos such as Autechre’s Gantz Graf (below) and many other pioneering electronic works. What was interesting about his work, I felt, was that he used architectural forms without really having an considerations for architecture. It was all about surface for his work, as if he were an architect who worked purely in facades – something that I think is common with a lot of work in videogames, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4ZwTUUue1w

Also on this panel was Matt Webb from BERG. This London design firm are rapidly becoming popular outside just the design sector, thanks to their over-arching philosophies, omnivorous interests, and thorough blogging of all the topics surrounding their research. They’re the kind of creative force that is fast making general design more interesting, purely on the level of ideas, than any other sector. Anyone who has been following Webb for a while will be familiar with the themes he touched on here – the inspirational value of 1970s space station illustrations, the idea of the macroscope, and the importance of Hello Little Fella in design. He also looked at “fractional AI”, the idea that AI isn’t turning up in the monolithic intelligences of Wargames or 2001, but instead in things like hamster toys that make “hilarious noises”. It’s not huge and all-encompassing, but cheap, tiny, and handling just a tiny fragment of what we might regard as intelligent. This led to a discussion of ubiquitous computing: what is interesting about technology now is that it is, thanks to be distributed and fractional, “disappearing” into the world around us. The screen is (possibly) become less important as the focus of all things hi-tech, because hi-tech, and the internet, is in everything from kids toys to washing machines.

I’m not sure whether this is a consequence of the last Thrilling Wonder Stories, or simply a factor of me being older and broader, but I was far more familiar with the interests and obsessions of this set of speakers – and, consequently less surprised by their ideas – than I had been at the first event. This is a purely personal observation, of course, but it was interesting to see most of the speakers setting up their obsessions as a kind of pitch stall, staking out their little landscape of ideas and offering up its fruits to others. As a consequence it felt more prosaic than the original Thrilling Wonder Stories, much more about showcasing work than about simply unloading ideas. Vandermeer and Self particularly were reeling off variants of their standard book pitches that I had already seen elsewhere. As beautiful as Vandermeer’s mind is, and as funny as Self remains, they were somehow less useful than last year’s participants, and had neither the same intellectual verve nor the same quotient of take-home ideas as the previous speakers.

Panel four – Apocalyptic Visions – was also largely familiar to me. Anthony Johnston, the author of the Wasteland comics, spoke about how the city in his novel had begun to tell its own stories, pushing him away from his original “wasteland” remit of telling stories out in the desert. The city exhibited so much pull, because buildings automatically tell stories, that he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – steer away from it. For Johnston, the value of buildings is how we understand them, as place that imply things, and ask questions. It is “the locked door”, the thing that instantly creates mystery. What is behind it? Why is it locked? Who locked it? And so on. Johnston handed over to the remarkable Rachel Armstrong. She too a science fiction author, but also a working scientist researching synthetic biology, and particularly metabolic materials for buildings. Armstrong’s work is fascinating – life like systems operating without DNA programming – and she is an extraordinarily vivid and glamorous character. It seems as if she could easily have been written into existence by one of the other speakers. The speculative project she outlined was using cell-like chemical systems to create a kind of reef-like deposit under Venice, and to thereby save it from sinking into the sea. Of all the ideas that were presented at this event, hers was the most extraordinary and – by virtue of her being a working researcher – the most plausible and pragmatic. Amazing, almost fictional, but edging into the real. As Manaugh pointed out, Armstrong’s work was less an apocalyptic vision, and more of an apocalyptic antidote.

Last up for panel four was Ed Stern from Splash Damage. He talked about the background for designing The Ark, the floating eco-city gone bad that plays host to Brink, their forthcoming shooter. Stern was at his best here, working hard to outline the commercial constraints of modern videogames as well as pointing out how its possible to be creative and provocative even within the tight templates of something as formulaic as a first-person shoot ‘em ups. His closing statement – the game’s trailer – got the biggest cheer of the day. Whatever the crowd, people seem to appreciate men with guns, and Stern had provided an illuminating glimpse of the difficulties that the Men With Guns creators currently face. Brink is particularly ambitious, trying to set itself apart with a mixture of hyper-realism and a scenario that had not been seen before in either games or film. The panel’s subsequent conversation also turned to Minecraft, thanks to Anthony Johnston, as they touched on the idea of whether the indie games scene equates to the same kind of things as Art cinema. Stern argues that it does not, and I agree with him. But more on that another time. A good outing from the videogame fraternity, anyway.

The final panel I recollect through a haze of exhaustion, as we had been going for eight hours at this point. Thoughts were starting to lose their glue. First up were Ant Farm, an “alternative” architecture practice founded in the 1960s and based in San Francisco. These chaps talked about their time capsule projects, ending with a recollection of a dream that one of them had, which didn’t really make much sense to me. This deliriousness might have been a consequence of their presentation being via Skype on a big screen in the room, rather than in person, an event that was simultaneously a super-modern instance of network power and baffling disconnected, or I might have just really needed a cup of tea. Also in the bafflingly disconnected camp was the final presentation from radical artist (and enormously accomplished sculptor) Joep Van Lieshout, who spoke about his speculative “free state” A.V.L.ville, which he had built as a kind of studio-cum-anarchist commune on a piece of land off Rotterdam harbour. Having declared themselves a free state, the AVL inhabitants began to try to operate as such until Van Lieshout made claims about the possibility of dog-fucking to the local press, and the authorities became involved. Having been frustrated in his attempts to build a real society, Van Lieshout moved his architectural art (via his key obsessions of mobile homes and sex) to a new city design: Slave City. This design, fortunately never realised, proposed a 60km2 ideal city, which was self sufficient, given enough slaves. The slaves would work in call centres, generating $8bn a year in revenue, while weak or unsuitable candidates would be butchered for food and biofuel. The audience laughed, astonished at these proposals for organised prostitution and cannibalism, all of which were delivered by Van Lieshout with a dose of good humour. It nevertheless ended up seeming rather sinister. If Roche had closed last year’s event sounding like the mad architect who would build the villain’s volcano base, then Van Lieshout ended this event by sounding like the villian himself. “It’s not my fault,” I imagined him saying, “it was all in the name of art!”

Art probably isn’t a good enough excuse for much of this stuff. Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh are producing a series of events (there’s due to be a third Thrilling Wonder Stories next year) that I suspect some commentators will see as weird or frivolous. Entertaining the notions of fantasy authors and fringe intellectuals seems at odds with some of the tasks that architecture faces, but, as Self pointed out, so many architects will end up having their work prescribed for them by forces beyond their control, ending up building boring airports or safe rail infrastructure, that any chance to push them towards genuine creativity must be snapped up. It isn’t just about art, because even art is never just about art. Nor is architecture just about buildings, or even just about the people who inhabit the buildings. It’s about everything. That seems to be what these events are designed to demonstrate. For the rest of us, particularly those of us in comparatively closed circles of interests, such as the games industry, Thrilling Wonder Stories represents a kind of challenge: to find out where interesting projects intersect with our own, and to see what we can learn from them. Perhaps we’ll learn nothing at all, but it’s worth finding out.


Sep 23 2010

The Prosthetic Imagination

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

“We tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

- Steven Shaviro, 2003, Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Videogames are the reason I could be considered a cyborg. Not in the sense that I have had parts of my physical body taken over by electronic or mechanical systems, but in the sense that I often have had my imagination taken over by electronic and mechanical systems. Gaming, particularly electronic gaming, often imbues me with some of the most essential properties of a cyborg.

The reasoning behind this idea unfolds as follows. Technology, each and every technology, is “an extension of ourselves”. Marshal McLuhan makes good that claim in his writings, and it is an idea that stands up to significant scrutiny. The poking stick that increases our reach, the car that increases our range and speed, the giant radio telescopes that extend our gaze into the heavens and through the electromagnetic spectrum: all are extension. They extend, or even replace (for the cyborg), our natural faculties. Technology is extension. Extension, then, is a core principle of the cyborg, too. The point at which extension and biological limits cross over.

Games are high technology, and so what do games extend? As items for sensory and intellectual interrogation, it seems to that they must extend our minds. More specifically, perhaps, our imaginations. This will be true of all games. Initially that extension might have been rather rudimentary – extensions of logic and chance with card games, extensions of the fantasies of childhood with wooden props and cardboard castles – but now, with the gaming Guttenberg press of the persona computer (those “personal idea amplifiers”), games are sophisticated systems that model incredible complex processes in splendid pixellated parody of both real and unreal worlds.

Listening to Alan Moore’s spoken word performance Snakes & Ladders, where he muses on how creative people are “importers” and “explorers” from the realm of imagination, I began to think about how games are, in a sense, shared imaginative structures that have been exported from a group exploration of that realm. The combined intellectual alloy of the design teams that produce them are fashioned, sold, and then experienced by gamers like me. Something similar is true of novels and movies, of course, but the game has an even more direct influence on the imagination. By enabling the brain to manipulate with virtual systems, to engage with simulation, it creates systems than span the mental and the virtual, the biological and the electrical. Also, even more significantly to my point, our imagination is not a description as a book is a textual description, or a film is a visual description. It is, instead, a model.

However incomplete a model the imagination may be, it shares this primary attribute with games. They too are models. The game designer Will Wright, of SimCity and The Sims, has spoken a number of times about how the “real” model of the videogame is in the player’s mind, with the models presented by the game itself simply acting as a kind of mental compiler. Ours is a capacity to internally simulate things, to model them in consciousness, and then to predict how the world might be different. It’s a faculty that came about through a natural selection of efficient systems of perception. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues that complex animals’ ability to imagine has evolved out of necessity because they were required to be able to simulate their world, mentally, in order to survive it:

“Natural selection built in the capacity to simulate the world as it is because this was necessary in order to perceive the world. You cannot see that two-dimensional patterns of lines on two retinas amount to a single solid cube unless you simulate, in your brain, a model of the cube. Having built in the capacity to simulate models of things as they are, natural selection found that it was but a short step to simulate things as they are not quite yet—to simulate the future. This turned out to have valuable consequences, for it enabled animals to benefit from “experience,” not trial-and-error experience in their own past or in the life and death experience of their ancestors, but vicarious experience in the safe interior of the skull. And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.”

This offers a strange kind of realisation: that we are probably at our most human when engaged in acts of simulation.

Returning to that earlier notion of extension and replacement – the classic cyborg tropes – it’s interesting to swing by the work of Steven Shaviro, and particularly his book Connected. In that masterful musing on network society he talks about the notion of being a cyborg, and writes this:

“I extend the power of my hand or my mouth or my brain only at the price of excising the original organ-whether literally or figuratively-to make room for its replacement. Each time we extend ourselves technologically, some part of the real gives way to the virtual. This is why every cultural innovation is attended by an ambivalent sense of loss. And this is also why we tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

What would the implications be for our culture, Shaviro wonders, if prosthetic had been the dominant metaphor during the information revolution, rather than virtual? For games the ramifications are pretty obvious: prosthetic reality, prosthetic worlds. Not empty placebo realities, but useful extensions of this one. That also seems more apt when you look at the experience of gaming. You are not simply waving at passing spectres in the night, you are right in there, wrestling with the invented physics, unravelling the stories, ripping open alien monstrosities. The imagination is extended into this space, it spills back and forth from technology to mind. You can see this happening when you watch players at work. Their thinking is right there on the screen. As with the Clark/Chalmers model of “extended” cognition, players are thinking on the screen with the Tetris blocks, working out the peculiar physics of each game world in a loop that encompasses the electronic state of the computer and the brain in one recursive process.

There’s something else here too: the way in which games appeal to the pattern-completing instincts that are fundamental to our behaviour. The way they entrance, compel, and mesmerise. Electronic games colonise and inhabit the imagination in a way that’s analogous to the traditional image of electro-mechanical devices colonising/extending the human body in cyborg physicality. Taking over systems while they are engaged. Parts of my brain are tracking imagined, simulated spaces that are also tracked and mapped in the game. And do I remove an arm of my imagination to replace it with MMO processes when I can think of nothing else? Games are more than the tune you can’t stop humming because you heard it on an insurance commercial, and they are more than singing along to that tune on the radio. Games are, rather, like a system of scaffolding for the imagination, allowing to make its work more concrete, and for it to climb higher than it has even done before.

Of course most games are terrible, limited, unimaginative things, which seems to cast a gloom on all this speculative excitement. But that might not matter. The faked, regimented gardening of the Farmville player is just as much an instance of the kind of cyborg I am talking about, as the most poignant flow of light from Shadow Of The Colossus. What is important here is to recognise how the cyborg, and the nature of the cyborg in our world of information, is not the nature of Robocop and other such crude caricatures collisions of humanity and technology. The cyborg is mental, psychic. The new human which is emerging from the flows and processes that our technologies are surrounding us in is projecting itself into inner space, via physical space. Any and all games can do this.

Shaviro again, completing that passage that takes its cues from Haraway’s account of the cyborg.

“The cyborg is the very figure of this permeability. It is fully physical, but light and cool: a “subtle, fluid and tenuous” form of materiality. In their indifference to binary categorizations, their easy trafficking between real and virtual, Haraway writes, “cyborgs are ether, quintessence”.”

Ether, quintessence: the same words that writers end up using to discuss the immaterial boulevards of our imaginings. What videogames are is something fully physical, but it is also an instance of that easy trafficking between the real and virtual. It is, perhaps, as a playful technology, the easiest extension of them all. The prosthetic imagination.


Jul 6 2010

This Gaming Life Digital Version Now Online

It’s readable in full here. And it could have been there for ages, but no one told me. Why would they? I only wrote the damned thing.


Jun 19 2010

Talk To Me About The Future Of Humanity

Last Wednesday I spent some time at Future Human‘s “Immersion Drama” event at The Book Club in Shoreditch, London. The attending crowd was a fashionable herd consisting of more of the local Old St digerati fauna than most games-related events I attend in London. It felt a little odd to recognise only a handful of the folks in the audience, but I still ended up being asked about RPS, so the basal-level of PC nerd was still there. That was reassuring. Also, I got this sticker:

Stickers are almost always okay.

The evening kicked off with a presentation by Ben Beaumont-Thomas, in which he talked about “transmedia storytelling” and related things. This basically referenced all that alternate reality and cross-format pollination of content and marketing that seems to have proliferated massively in the past few years. His most interesting example was the Nine Inch Nails event based around Year Zero, which was beautifully spooky, with coded messages in “found” USB keys, decrypted images of a giant hand trailing from the sky, and general warnings from the future about some pseudo-Rapture horrors. It was a story told in a distributed sense, across the music itself, attendance of gigs, real-world discoveries, and lots of digging around on the internet. You will probably be familiar with this format by now, of course, thanks to it being heavily explored by some big corporations, such as Microsoft. (There was also reference to a book that was on screen briefly in Lost, and then was created as a real, essentially unrelated book by a publishing house invented and created by the lost team. Wikipedia reminds us that there are a lot of other fictional books that would have been more interesting to bring into the real world.)

Anyway, Year Zero was all fun and games for NIN obsessives, but this kind of thing is exciting stuff for the rest of us, too, because it points a way towards participatory story-telling activities that take us into a potential realm of expression and imaginative exploration that previous generations of artists and thinkers seemed to have longed for. Beaumont-Thomas’ specific example was the idea of the “4th dimension” with regards to the Cubists, which was – I am guessing – another degree of perspective, perhaps a poetic dimension, that was required to understand their work. Cubism wasn’t about technical accomplishment, so there was something else going on, something about how the general imagination of the audience dealt with this new art-form. I’m not sure I quite understood the link he was making, but I think the crucial idea to take away from it was that alternate reality projects, or “transmedia”, could potentially provide a way for us to find new perspectives on art and story-telling: making it more like an ecosystem of imaginative activities than simply the broadcast of one (or a few) mind’s vision to an audience beyond.

All of which had me stoked for the rest of the evening… which didn’t go so well. The second section was a “crowd-sourced” trans-media project, which basically had some volunteers from the audience, the audience, and the organizers trying to suggest how some kind of game-event-competition could be organised using the principles of transmedia storytelling. It was a little confusing, even if the resulting adultery project on the Titanic (entitled “Cruising”) was very funny to watch unfold.

Then came a panel section with guests Matt Wieteska, ARG designer from Six To Start, Jade Tidy, producer of episodic murder-mystery PS3 game Blue Toad Murder Files, and Tim Jones, producer at interactive theatre troupe Coney. There was a fourth panel member, too, but I don’t know who that was. This was supposedly aimed at exploring the ideas of alternate reality and transmedia, but it also arrived at the “immersion” of the evening’s title. It was at this point that things really began to come apart, as it became clear no one was quite sure what they were addressing when they were talking about immersion. Old pennies of game debate, such as the Holodeck and “what happens when we can’t tell if we’re still inside the game” began to crop up alongside questions of worth and dangers of involving people in alternate reality scenarios, and thoughts about what it means to be engaged in different types of storytelling provided through digital platforms. Quite different kinds of immersion that were indistinct in the discussion, leading to some confused answers. Yeah, I’m was feeling a bit snobby at this point, and I’m probably going to seem snarky, but in truth my own beret-wearing arthouse crowd of mainstream and indie gamers has already explored these subjects individually and thoroughly, and it was clear that the discussion was only just getting to its feet with Future Human’s panel and audience.

Ultimately, although well intended and with some fun ideas, I think Immersion Drama probably failed for thinking it had to have anything to do with “immersion”, or, in truth, any discussion whatsoever of old-fashioned on screen videogames. Beaumont-Thomas’ initial foray into discussing how many different kinds of media are creating a new palette for story-telling and involvement in artistic spectacle was a great starting point to an event of some kind, but it was one in which the attendees chased down those specific concepts: exploring whether there are additional formats and platforms these things could exploit, asking about whether we really want or need reality and fantasy to become indistinct, examining why it is that marketing has provided the motor for so much of the alternate reality invention, and looking at what the imaginative fallout could be for people who are spend time treating reality like a grand Easter Egg hunt. I’d be interested to see more discussion along these lines, and I hope Beaumont-Thomas expands his initial piece online somewhere for all to see.

Is the future of humanity a confused debate about our engagement with digital games followed by a disco? Perhaps. But we took flight to another reality in a nearby pub, just to be safe.


May 30 2010

Victory For The Apocalypticians?


Dystopia and apocalypse are consistently popular imaginative themes. Between Jericho and The Road, or 2012 and The World Without Us, there is a sprawling middle ground of abandoned metropolises and imagined dooms. It filters into the real world too: online we share photographs of urban decay, wandering into the abandoned corners of our cities to taste what the future might really be like without us. In the world of suits and headlines, even with the threat of global nuclear war so diminished, apocalypse remains at the forefront of policy. What of the climate, the seas, the air we breathe? The sheer numbers? Collectively, we’re keen on wondering if we’re at the brink. And, if we are, then we’re asking: what are things going to look like?

A common interpretation of apocalypse in fiction is that it represents the author’s wishes to radically change or destroy himself: by obliterating everything that makes him what he is, perhaps, he is reincarnating himself, what he has become, or what was going to be. This, I suppose, transfers to the reader. They get to imagine the inverted tyranny of deleted worlds, and their own shattered futures, too.

What does it mean, then, when the default view of the future for a large part of any given society is an apocalyptic one? Are we trying to find a way to express a need for change? We’ve been here before, I think. Plague and war in the Middle Ages inspired an epidemic of apocalyptic thinking, with all the attendant prophesying. There might be disaster, the Christianity-bound soothsayers argued, but heaven would follow for the believers. It might even have seemed sensible to assume the end times really were nigh. And why not? When things are crummy and the chips are down, it’s fair enough to want things to change, whether that’s via disaster or otherwise.

Looking around at the atmosphere in entertainment contemporary culture, the attitude of some of the people around me, and the general climate of fear created by, well, the climate, the same could be true of today. Our situation is rather different, of course, and I’m not making such claims lightly. I am not a doom-monger, nor a climate-change denier. I’m partial to a fictional apocalypse, and I’m probably part of the dystopian centre-ground: I think things need a lot of work. Still, I don’t feel qualified make any real predictions. What interests me is the taste for apocalypse in entertainment culture right now. I’d noticed that taste long before I’d really connected any of the dots. My own shelf was full of end times scenarios, and they seemed like a good idea in games, too. (To balance out the elf and space marine quotas.)

It was last year’s Thrilling Wonder Stories that finally made me sit up and think about this. The key moment was in the talk by science fiction writer Iain MacLeod, in which he spoke about the visions the future that he had been getting kids in schools to produce over the years. Increasingly, he reported, visions produced by children were dystopias, or even apocalypses. The visions of the future produced by contemporary schoolchildren, said MacLeod, were dark. Observably grimmer than those produced a decade, or two decades ago.

A startling thought! The trickle-down effect of what was popular in entertainment culture, and what was popular in international politics, had pooled in the imagination of children. Not for this generation of kids, the lure of the stars, or the wonders of limitless human invention. Rather, they were destined to be pessimists by default: ready to accept the decline of civilisation, or the death of the Earth, as just the prevailing narrative. They parsed the mass of sci-fi images produced by our culture, interpolated them with terrorism and eco-doom, and decided that the funny bald author guy at the front of the class wanted to see transmissions from a future dark.

Perhaps they didn’t actually interpret this stuff as necessarily negative. Apocalyptic imagery is “cool” in terms of imaginative currency. It’s hip and credible in a way that Dan Dare’s rocketship no longer is. Nevertheless, it’s a disconcerting message.

MacLeod’s report is, of course, purely anecdotal. The current surge of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in films, games, and fiction could be purely coincidental. But perhaps it is nevertheless irresponsible. We might be enjoying the voyeurism of utter destruction, we might be finding release in the portraits of radical change that these destructive fictions offer, but perhaps we should stop assuming it’s our lifespan that matters. Perhaps we should be turning up at the cinema expecting more stories about resilience, or reports from the future where the problems are what to do with limitless energy, or Japanese consciousness multipliers, rather than dustbowls and gasmask hipsters. Authors: is that nihilism really what you want to leave behind? Your silhouette a stoop, rather than a hurrah?

I was banging on about this stuff last week and someone said to me “Yeah, you do like your retro shiny shit.” And I realised that I’ve only recently learned to like it, because I want to rescue something from it. I want to rescue an attitude which said that the imagined future looked more like this:


Feb 15 2010

Rock, Paper, Shotgun, And Why We Need To Make Publications Into Homes, Or Maybe Just Local Pubs

I was fascinated to read Wired UK‘s take on the Apple tablet, the rivals to the Kindle, and the race to create a digital magazine format, as featured in the latest issue of that magazine. Peter Kirwan’s article relates to the kind of topics I’ve touched on before on this blog, but it wasn’t so much the HTML vs other online design that really grasped me, but rather how a number of comments made in the article relate to the experiences I’ve had with something I haven’t talked much about on this site: the creation and success of Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been my other project for the better part of three years, and I co-own it with three other writers. Our intention was to create a unique website – specifically one about PC gaming – which we’ve done fairly successfully. The site now sees roughly 400,000 visitors each month and largely pays for its own smooth running. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, the way in which we’ve identified a community and then managed it. We realised early on that the rush to create commercial blogs for the generalist gamer had left one particular format – the PC – out in the cold, despite the fact that the same format had dominated the early days of the web. PC gaming media had fragmented into community niches, or particular gaming genre sites, and there was no equivalent of, or supplement to, the kind of thing that magazines like PC Gamer were doing, which was to deliver a broad survey of what was going on in that space. We wanted to do precisely that, because it matched with our own diverse tastes. Secondly, much of the web is rude, thoughtless, or chauvinistic. That’s often true of Rock, Paper, Shotgun too, but we’ve gone much further than most other communities in actively cracking down on it. Rather than rely on a crowd-based system of voting comments and up and down, we’ve opted to curtail free speech and employ massive deletions. Create an atmosphere in which trolling and idiocy is not tolerated at all, and it starts to recede. All this left us with an excellent place for people did want to discuss the issues of PC gaming to start reading on a regular basis.

So anyway, the Wired article quotes Sara Ohrvall of Bonnier R&D, who says of web media consumption: “People become ‘rootless’ in their behaviour… They consume media in places where they happen to end up. This leaves consumers uncertain about whether they have read/listened to/viewed what’s relevant to them, or not.” She goes on saying that you “always link somewhere else, the story never ends.” It’s about curation, says the article. Magazines curate content for readers. Which is, of course, a lesser feature of news blogs and RSS feeds. They are an attempt at a different kind of curation, one that is similar to, but more fragmentary than, the kind magazines offered previously.

What has perhaps fallen by the wayside is the sense of a connected community that is built into the systems. Many of these sites aren’t engendering the kind of communities we’ve seen based around magazines, sometimes because they’re just news links that point elsewhere, and sometimes because they’re hostile environments, difficult for a newcomer to break into, or feel comfortable in. However, if they do manage to create a sense of community then that rootlessness begins to become less significant. Online readers begin to regard certain sites as bases from which to head out onto the web from. One of the most common bits of feedback I hear from RPS readers is that they’ll always have the site open in a tab, because they feel the need to check back and see what everyone is talking about, both in the editorial and the site comments. For my part, I use a number of sites I’m familiar with the explore the web from, returning to them later on. They’re my homepages in a very literal sense of the word.

Later in the Wired article the founder of The Wonderfactory, David Link, is quoted saying that new digital magazines designed for tablet-readers won’t link out much, because “they’ll want to keep the readers immersed in premium material.” They will, in effect, want to retain the “walled garden” that they’ve previously had with magazines. This seems to be me to be nonsense, and a recipe for disaster. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a far better model for a web magazine: a stream of news punctuated by longer articles, embedded within a community which is reasonably well-policed. This new generation of digital magazines, if and when they happen, should regard themselves as home-pages, or bases from which their readers can make excursions into the web. They are somewhere to focus a particular interest, to provide relevant material, and signposts to exploration. They’re also a place to return to later on. The best example of how this works on RPS is our regular ‘The Sunday Papers’ feature, in which readers regularly return to RPS to comment on an article, rather than – or in addition to – commenting on the source site. Why do they do that? Because they’re coming back home to share their thoughts with the people who they know have a similar understanding of the world to themselves. They’re not going to do that with something that is all controlled editorial, and an unpoliced pure-news site will have similar issues. Sure, we have riotous arguments, but the common thread of the site is enough to keep things ticking over, and keep people feeling invested.

Magazines, paper magazines, can be translated into these e-reader formats, but that does not mean the transition is actually useful or that it won’t be pointless against the backdrop of what the web is already doing. Learning from how the smaller, consistently popular sites like RPS are operating is the only way print media can evolve to meet the demands of the future reader.


Feb 12 2010

Meathooks, Andy Warhol, And The End Of Spaceflight

I sat down with the intention of writing about all the things that are going on in my working life right now, and then immediately realised that half of them are Top Secret and not for publication on the internet. That’s a shame because they’re really rather interesting. What I can say a little bit about is the new book, which I’ve now started working on in earnest, thanks to the labours of a splendid literary agent.

I’m aiming to expand on a few of the more interesting themes that I touched on in This Gaming Life, particularly those related to the social and psychological uses of gaming, and the role of boredom. For a while there I thought I was going to write a book on boredom, which itself is a fascinating topic. The word first turns up in print in 1852, in Dickens’ Bleak House, and then proliferates through English. What’s interesting is that similar words appeared in a number of European languages about that time, and etymological investigation shows that it is, linguistically at least, a fairly new concept. There are words for idleness, isolation, and derivations of disliking or hating something that go right back into Latin, but the specificity of boredom seems new. It’s as if it has evolved to fill a particular need, and as if modern life demanded it. We took boredom to peculiar heights in the 20th century, with some people even making an artform out of it (Warhol) or predicting that it was the whole of our future (Ballard), while the general public used it with increasing frequency to describe their experiences, or their state of mind. Boredom, punctuated by moments of extreme horror, is the Grim Meathook Future. Interestingly, the word “interesting” has also seen a correlating increase in its use.

Anyway, as I looked into boredom I realised that it’s the reactions to the condition that really what’s worth investigating. In This Gaming Life I basically posited that videogames are part of a complex response to boredom, but it’s worth taking that a little further, since videogames represent only one of a number of ways we might deal with boredom, or avoid it altogether. I’ve realised that I’m one of those people who is seldom bored when left to my own devices, and that’s because my behaviour is always to read, research, or play with something. When I’m trapped and unable to do these things is when boredom strikes, and how horrible it can be. The next book, then, explores wider, into realms of imaginative activity other than videogames, and gets to work on the rich tapestry of entertainments and distractions that we’ve created for ourselves. This week I’ve been constructing a piece that examines how a book, a film, and a videogame might all deal with the same topic, and how the technological differences between these formats changes both the experience as well as the subject that is being explored. Beyond that I’ve got some plans to look at how books, the moving image, and the interactive experience are all connected, and how the 20th century coughed them up to give us the culture we have today.

To take some samples from the text, it seems that book two will include such topics as: hippies and computers, the dream machine developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the weather behind Frankenstein, the all-time total number of novels published, why I am jealous of the protagonist of The Truman Show, why a space programme could be replaced with an inner-space programme, and what World Of Warcraft players and cyborgs have in common. And more!

Anyway, more news on those secret projects soon, and maybe even some extracts from the book-in-progress.


Dec 12 2009

This Gaming Life, Paperback Now Available In Europe/UK

The paperback edition of This Gaming Life has been out in North America for a while, but it hits the warehouses of the UK and Europe next week.

TGL is a book about gamers and the games they play. It’s about the value of videogames, and about the stories I collected from three very different gaming cities: London, Reykjavik and Seoul.

Raph Koster, game designer and author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, said: “This Gaming Life is a fascinating and eye-opening look into the real human impact of gaming culture. Traveling the globe and drawing anecdotes from many walks of life, Rossignol takes us beyond the media hype and into the lives of real people whose lives have been changed by gaming. The results may surprise you.”

Lots of other smart people said nice things about it too.


Nov 5 2009

Aftershocks

We were travelling to Exeter in Alex’s Ford Dilemma when it happened.

It was a sum that added his lack of attention to the treachery of a dark country road, and then multiplied the jeopardy with another car coming the other way, too fast to negotiate. At that last instant before the collision Alex stopped talking and we swerved in strange silence. It was time for goodbyes, but we just gawped at the inevitable. The car jolted a vast single noise of impact and we spun through cool air. The scything motion of the car came to an abrupt, black end.

Then, without a moment to compose myself, I was pushed forward, stumbling through a galvanised door into a brightly lit corporate foyer. I stood, askew with surprise, in a wide open glass chamber with a shiny marble floor. There were many more chambders to my left and to my right, each with desks at the head. And there were other people through there, in these parallel foyers, suggesting we were all trying to gain access to the vast administrative building beyond.

On the floor in front of me was a huge white enamel arrow, slightly scuffed at the edges, that had evidently been repaired a couple of times over the years. Looking around I could see that every parallel foyer had an arrow of its own. In each case the arrow led to a desk where two clerks were waiting. Two by two, across the foyers, as far as I could see, this was the situation. Behind me, beyond the glass door, was blackness. Night. I retreated, pulling at the door handle. It wouldn’t budge.

As I looked about I saw more people stumbling through doors in the endless procession of glass corridors either side of me. Some keenly approached the desks ahead of them. Others stood, seemingly stunned. Some of the desks hosted customers who gesticulated wildly or stood, silent and thoughtful as the clerks explained something to them. I craned my neck. Was that Alex? I thought I could make out his awkward posture, off in the misty multi-paned distance.

I approached my desk. The clerks ignored me until I got up close to them. They were both dressed quite elegantly in stylish 1950’s-cut suits. Narrow ties. Pinstripe. The right-hand clerk was talking: ‘…herded by mutually inclusive momentary individualities,’ he explained to his colleague. The conversation trailed off as they turned to regard me with flickering eyes.

‘Rossignol?’

‘Yes?’

The clerk scanned something behind the desk, out of sight. ‘Hah! He’s the son of that other Rossignol,’ he said to the second clerk. Then to me he said: ‘Did you know your father died just an hour before you did? What a coincidence! Isn’t life full of them?’

I shrugged, having no good opinion on coincidences, or fathers. The clerk scanned me with as he spoke, as if checking for something. The second man behind the desk turned to rifle through a filing cabinet, mouthing something as he did so, something for the benefit of his partner, but hidden from me. He was oddly hunched. Perhaps there was something under his suit… across the shoulder-blades?

‘Mr J M Rossignol… yes. You’re an atheist! It says here you insisted on the non-existence of God just last week.’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

He seemed smug; evidently he enjoyed pointing this out to the non-believers. I was too stunned to be frightened or nauseous. This wasn’t how I’d wanted to go. I felt like I should be panicking, but my Englishness buried the horror that was balling up in my chest. At this point, of course, there was something more fundamental hatching behind my eyes: my carefully-crafted personal philosophies were collapsing. The afterlife was not a comforting fiction.

‘Well,’ said the first clerk. ‘You haven’t done anything that really defines your rest, so I’ll have to recommend you’re briefed by Mr Wilson.’

At this point I was directed to the second, more sneering, clerk, who indicated for me to follow him through a sliding door at the back of the room. I did so, noticing as I went that there were dead flies in the neon-strip light-cover overhead.

In the room beyond there were a table and two chairs. I wished there had also been a water-cooler, since I was really very thirsty. But there was not and it seemed rude to make any demands at this stage. We sat down. Mr Wilson did not smile.

‘Mr Rossignol, you’ve not done anything genuinely damnable, but you’re also one of these rather selfish creative types… and an atheist. This means we’ve a number of options for you. Management does pride itself on providing choice for our newly-dead. And the non-religious get to try out some of His more experimental afterlives.’

‘Right.’

‘So, here’s the list of the afterlives my colleague has selected as appropriate for you. I’m sure you’d like to read it for yourself.’

Mr Wilson pushed a few sheets of A4 paper towards me. I picked them up and read:

1. Ambient Male #4 – Fly and/or walk through a beautiful land of ambient imagery derived from your own subconscious. Ambient Male #4 is a solitary afterlife that caters for the hermitic tendencies found prevalent in your material existence. It has a low bliss-factor but is likely to cater to intellectual needs with its own space-station library hub.

A list of perplexing statistics followed.

I turned the page.

2. Robotus! – One of our new afterlives where you can live out a fantasy of becoming an automaton. The ever-changing technological environment allows you to experience a vast array of artificial existences, including battle and robotic copulation. Modular play and the possibility for technological hybridisation will allow you to experiment with your automated systems in the safety of our fully furnished hyperlab.

More strange numbers and factoids.

3. Socratic Party – Exist in intellectual and chemical delirium in an ever-changing existence of philosophical celebration. You will exist to party hard with all the personally interesting (to your psychological makeup) people from the last two thousand years. We have selected Socrates, Horace and a number of your favourite fictional philosophers and cosmologists to join you in this after-life. Additional thinkers can be summoned on demand, each with their own repertoire of soul-pleasing epigrams.

I leaned back in my chair, glazing over the facts while my brain looked for a joke that would dismiss the situation. I looked around, waiting for a prankster to explode forward with manic grin and camera crew.

Mr Wilson tapped his fingers on the table. I skipped a page or two.

7. Romantic Liaison Hyper-Intensity #1048520 – Pursue endless romantic gratification with a sublimely attractive (tattooed) female scientist. Your coupling will be given hyper-intensity status by your being forever pursued across a mesmeric landscape by a giant red crab. (As per dream 17,928, from your dream profile. [Available on request.])

8. Intoxication Fantasy Beach Scenario #4564 – Enjoy the company of exotic animals and a race of witty amphibious sea-people while wandering in a garden of exotic fruits and narcotics, designed to allow an infinite matrix of psychedelic indulgence…

9. The Conversation Scenario #6 – The endless joy of the perfect conversation, unravelling for all time…

10. Champion #1924 – lead the people of Earth to perpetual victory over monstrous alien armies while collecting a harem of extra-terrestrial brides…

I looked back at Mr Wilson. ‘How many of these are there?’

‘Fifty three,’ Wilson nodded. ‘Each one derived from His direct access to your stream of consciousness.’

‘And these–‘

‘–aren’t your only options, no. You can choose any of our traditional afterlives, or from our top twenty young-male fates. You’re not quite old enough to experience the eternal family-man afterlife, and I don’t think it would suit you.’

‘So what would you recommend?’

‘Nothing on this list struck you as tempting?’

‘One of them, certainly.’

‘But you still want my advice?’

‘Please.’

‘Well, Mr Rossignol, I think you should opt for having your consciousness permanently extinguished. There are a number of reasons for this: your possible restlessness in the afterlife, which might have some ugly psychic side-effects, but primarily the fact that by accepting His will, you are denying the humanist precepts which you preached with such fervour. You would, in effect, be crossing out your life and the moral structure you built for yourself.’

‘So I should give up eternal life because I drunkenly argued against the tenets of religion with Bible-bashing friends?’

Wilson eyed me coldly. ‘They say the English are the most natural hypocrites,’ he observed.

I considered the list once again. I took my time. I imagined those fates. I wondered how God had managed to formulate these scenarios from what he’d glimpsed of my imagination and dreams. Did know how often I thought about… Yes. The evidence was right here.

I held my breath for a moment and then let it out, very slowly.

‘Hmm. Okay,’ I said, leaning forward across the desk.

‘You’ve made a choice? If you don’t one will be made for you.’

‘Yes. And I choose…’


Sep 23 2009

An Unconscious Review Of Grand Theft Auto 5

I’ve been having vivid dreams recently, and one of them was a review of GTA5. I woke up and wrote down the fragments I could remember to type up later. Here it is.

GTA5 was on a screen, a videogame trailer. It might even had had a YouTube frame. The game was once again set in the parallel New York city of GTA4, Liberty City. (A game I’ve been playing a great deal recently.) GTA5 was, said a spokesman on the evening news, the best example of a city yet seen in a videogame, and so RockStar chose to build on that, rather than create something entirely new. It would feature new interactions, and your actual mobile phone, somehow. Did the game ring you up in real life to give you missions? Maybe.

While my dream told me that what I was seeing was my own review of GTA5, it was also a news analysis show. It had that classic dream logic, whereby I was able to identify all the discussion and ideas as my own, but Kieron Gillen and Alan Yentob were saying the lines, as they sat in leather armchairs in a TV studio to discuss the game.

GTA5 would, I/they explained, feature apartments across the city into which your character could walk, and rather than entering the living cutscenes of the previous games, he’d face a kind of dynamic soap opera, which would resolve in a mission. Each of the apartments contained the characters of popular sitcom, Friends, but these were placeholders, so as not to spoil the game for viewers.

Crucially, said Alan Yentob, the game was “a mindbomb of satire”. While GTA4 might have piled on the vicious mocking and black humour, this was a crafted, calculated assault on American culture that would remap the gamers who played it. Kieron agreed, sipping white wine as he explained how the United States was already on the precipice of a revolution, and would now be pushed over by a videogame that had pinpointed and exploded every hypocrisy and falsity in its culture.

“The game is so excruciating,” said Alan Yentob, “that no-one could ignore this shit any longer.”

Here’s hoping, eh?