Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bad Air

Now, there are some who would argue that I am missing the point of Raph Koster's article.  He's talking about addiction and the substitution of social needs, the worry that some users will fail to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy, as well as concerns that the moral lessons learned in video games will leak out and cause everyday violence.

These are things, Koster says, that the creators of games ought to worry about.  People need help and surely it is better to make games that help people than it would be to make games that encourage divisiveness and unhappiness.  No?

It sounds very well but in fact the language is deliberately slanted to promote an agenda, that agenda itself couched with idioms like 'channel of communication' and 'imprinting behaviour' - both of which apply to every moment in which one person speaks to another.  Whenever I hear of people who speak of art in terms of opening channels, it's quite plain they've become enraptured with meaningless pat phrases that fail to specify what's happening any more than what I do when I ask the barista for coffee.  I'm opening a 'channel of communication' there, too.  When I'm told to have a good morning as the coffee cup is passed to me, that's also 'imprinting behaviour.'

Looked at closely, arguments like "a substantial proportion of the audience is using it [your game] as a therapeutic tool" betrays a strong, patronizing attitude.  It presupposes that anyone who turns to a game for satisfaction, escape or comfort is somehow more needy or weaker than those of us who do not need a video game for that.  The attitude is carried further when Koster says,

"Think about what sort of people these are, and how your design affects them. Think about the ways in which your design will be misused, and the ways in which it may impact a player emotionally."

Poor wee lambs, they need your help to encourage them not to 'misuse' your product or helplessly fall victim to your masterful power to confuse their tiny minds.

This pervasive attitude that has arisen, that argues game culture ought to be a means for social engineering and not merely a tool for entertainment, is an old, old pariah that has already made its way through prose, film and music.  It is the other side of the same coin that derived the Hays Code, sought to ban rock & roll and fears for what the young people are reading.  It is an ever-present argument that says, "We know what's best for you, because what's best for you has already been decided by experts who have been stung by the bad side of gaming."

Koster is precisely this sort of pundit.  He puts it right there in the article,

"I had seen many players of MUDs get hooked on them to the exclusion of studies, or watched them damage their real life personal relationships while favoring the virtual ones."

To which the reader is expected to have the visceral reaction:  "OMG, they ignored their studies? They ruined their relationships?  That's awful!"

But how much were they invested in those studies, really?  How good were those relationships?  We don't know.  We're not expected to consider even what specific coursework these non-specific people were involved in.  Our minds are led to immediately assume we're talking doctors and people who were married with a whack of kids - because that's the worst possible scenario that can fit the 'facts' - but don't worry, Koster created Ultima umpty-umpth years ago, so he's an expert on how people live their lives and the choices they make.

We're all D&D players here, so we've heard all the lectures about not spending too much time on D&D and how it is going to ruin all our lives.  We've heard the lectures on not taking imaginary campaigns too seriously, given by people who have never played or by people in the industry who are holding the next copy of Grakka's Death Castle IV behind their back, hoping to sell it's 32-page format for $40.  In the case of the latter, all this concern about the user is just so much lip service paid to people who are neither sellers nor users, just so the business model can include the disclaimer, "But we did warn them!"

It is all about disclaimers.  It was unstated in the previous post, but no one really subverts their freedom to write as they will due to this 'responsibility' they share.  Moral responsibility is fine, so long as it rides in tandem with what the creator wants . . . but as soon as the creation and the responsibility go their separate way, the creator very quickly argues "Art" and "Freedom of Expression" and the responsibility argument quickly skulks out the door.

Koster's argument carries the same merit.  Once a created video game gets off the chain, grows wildly popular and begins to reshape culture in ways the author never imagined, there's no rush forward by the creators to take any real responsibility for the fall-out.  It's only a matter of time before these same wee lambs realize they might have a court case if they sue the game manufacturers, based on the exact same 'responsibility' argument that was made prior to the game's success - whereupon responsibility is unceremoniously dropped while the game makers cry "User Accountability" and "Sanctity of the Marketplace."

These moral arguments only matter to people who are not playing the game.  For those on the inside, these arguments only apply when the consequences come to call.  The game player who realizes that he's been five months in his basement only because the pizza boxes and the bottles of urine are getting in the way of his monitor is happy to applaud Koster's morality.  The makers of Axe-Kill, Death in Schnectady, only sees the 'truth' of Koster's position when they've lost the court case against the sixteen families suing over the string of axe-murder deaths that began in Schenectady three days after the release of the game.  Until they lose, however . . . all that morality stuff is obviously nonsense.  There was, after all, a disclaimer on the box.

I'm pretty sure, however, that if the case ever came up, the defendants wouldn't lose.  No one wants a legal precedent that supports the argument that Koster makes. No one, anywhere, wants to make creators - or any of the other manufacturers who have a little TOO much in common with creators - to ever be brought up on charges for social effects resulting from electronics, toys, motor vehicles, alcohol or any of the other things we use to actually affect people.  Point to the right of someone to bring me to charges for the consequences of a book I've written and I will point at all the gun manufacturers who should also be put on trial.

So long as they're safe, so am I.  And a responsibility without consequences is just air.  Nonsensical, self-promotional, moralistic, patronizing, condescending air, but air.  Empty, except for the lingering bad smell in the room.

6 comments:

Ozymandias said...

pa·tron·ize
/ˈpātrəˌnīz,ˈpatrəˌnīz/
treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority.
"“She's a good-hearted girl,” he said in a patronizing voice"

synonyms: treat condescendingly, condescend to, look down on, talk down to, put down, treat like a child, treat with disdain More

origin
Middle English: from Old French, from Latin patronus ‘protector of clients, defender,’ from pater, patr- ‘father.’


As a father, of course, I'm guilty of using this technique: "I experienced this thing and this is what I learned from it. Therefore, you (my child) should not do what you're doing right now because I know it'll be bad for you."

Generally speaking, a valid approach. But that's because I'm working with children who are still... well... children. As they age, learn and mature on their own, I will have to back off because they will acquire the wherewithal to make their own damn decisions. As most adults have (or should have) already done. Therefore, to all the would-be artists in the world, back the fuck off and stop worrying about how your work will affect people. You are not responsible for their actions.

Seriously... stop patronizing us...

Tim said...

I agree with Ozymandias. It should be the other way around: the world should be patronizing the artists!

Puns aside, one lovely irony I have appreciated in the "responsibility of art" discussion has been Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, which satirised the "issue" of art affecting people and, of course, did nothing to fundamentally alter the discussion beyond inspire more satirists. Funny how often the only domain which responds to radical new art is the art domain.

Thiles Targon said...

@Ozymandias - Agreed; I would also point out, it's also your job to do that for your child, it's not their job to do it for me, even if I need it.

Raph Koster said...

"Looked at closely, arguments like "a substantial proportion of the audience is using it [your game] as a therapeutic tool" betrays a strong, patronizing attitude. It presupposes that anyone who turns to a game for satisfaction, escape or comfort is somehow more needy or weaker than those of us who do not need a video game for that."

No, it doesn't presuppose anything of the sort. It supposes that SOME (not "anyone") of those who turn to a game are going through tough times, which is purely a statistical observation borne out by decades of evidence.

"Poor wee lambs, they need your help to encourage them not to 'misuse' your product or helplessly fall victim to your masterful power to confuse their tiny minds."

You are projecting. But as one example -- rampant playerkilling in UO emotionally hurt a lot of people. Nobody on the development team wanted that to happen; we were trying to make a game that was fun.

Your response seems to be "tough shit... you can't control it, and those who were emotionally hurt should just toughen up."

"This pervasive attitude that has arisen, that argues game culture ought to be a means for social engineering and not merely a tool for entertainment, is an old, old pariah that has already made its way through prose, film and music. It is the other side of the same coin that derived the Hays Code, sought to ban rock & roll and fears for what the young people are reading. It is an ever-present argument that says, "We know what's best for you, because what's best for you has already been decided by experts who have been stung by the bad side of gaming.""

You are confusing censorship with social responsibility. My post was absolutely NOT about third parties telling artists what to do. It's about artists thinking for themselves a little bit. The distinction is very very important.

"Once a created video game gets off the chain, grows wildly popular and begins to reshape culture in ways the author never imagined, there's no rush forward by the creators to take any real responsibility for the fall-out."

I've actually done exactly that MANY times.

"So long as they're safe, so am I. And a responsibility without consequences is just air. Nonsensical, self-promotional, moralistic, patronizing, condescending air, but air. Empty, except for the lingering bad smell in the room."

By this logic, you should feel free to be as insulting, rude, or verbally abusive as you like; after all, there are generally no consequences!

Your entire section on legal implications suffers from this same logical flaw; you argue that nobody likes legal consequences, so no one will argue for the moral angle. In large part because they are selfish.

Fundamentally, the arguments you are making lead towards amorality. I don't think this is where you mean for them to go, but it's where you are pointing. Your arguments lead to the conclusion that people shouldn't think about how they affect others. That they should assume that every person, no matter what their circumstances, is capable of avoiding any harm you might cause. That caring about other people's welfare is at heart patronizing.

The arguments I am making simply say "think about what you are doing when you make something." Not "don't do it." But "think."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Mr. Koster,

You would have done better to more strongly restate your position rather than attempting to tear down mine.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Raph Koster said...

Certainly happy to do so.

1) Media can affect people in a variety of ways. There are MANY studies backing this up on various levels (e.g., games are often used for reflex training; drills can be shown to create cognitive patterns; expertise in an area built up by drills can provide intuitive knowledge and grasp of complex situations; stories are used the world over to teach moral lessons and frameworks; stories have been shown to trigger emotional responses in people; etc.)

2) These effects are very far from mind control. Studies show that psychological arousal is limited in time period; that what correlations exist between game effects and longer-term behaviors are rather light, etc.

3) Artists should all feel free to create what they want.

4) Artists should also think about the fact that they can and do affect some people in some ways. Hopefully, they do anyway, since affecting people is a major part of the craft in any art form. Either way, though, they should know they are affecting people in real ways, and perhaps that might provoke some sense of responsibility.