For a Twiney interactive context of the three texts in question, check out Brendans website dedicated to the three texts.
Any designed work can be decomposed into two different kinds of features: Intrinsic features and extrinsic features.
An intrinsic feature is something we judge to be a non-reducible atom
of actual value that the audience wants and the work provides—that is,
the work’s purpose—while an extrinsic feature is anything that exists
solely to realize that purpose, providing no actual value in itself.
intrinsic features of Art media like literature or film, unlike those
of hammers and map APIs, are not easily reducible into language. Whereas
to design a hammer involves finding ways of realizing features whose
value is readily apparent, to make Art is to search for value lying
beyond the edges of our understanding: To capture something we know is
important to us even though we cannot quite say why.
inherit a little from Art but mostly from product design, which has
been kind of a problem for us. As an industry we put faith in the idea
that there is intrinsic value in the games we develop, although we don’t
think very expansively about what that could be; instead we abstract
it, using ugly words like “content” as placeholders for value without
ever proving that it truly exists. We then set about designing
incredible machines that shuttle players towards these placeholders with
extremely high efficiency, which as designers is really what we’re good
at. We make the interface as usable as we can because players need it
in order to learn the rules. We teach the rules very carefully because
players need them in order to grok the dynamics. We shape our dynamics
strategically because enacting them is what will stimulate players to
feel the aesthetics. Somewhere at the core of all this, we suppose,
lives the “content” players are attempting to access: That which we have
abstracted away so that we could hurry towards doing safe,
understandable product design rather than risky, unfathomable Art.
Attic is an unfashionable game. It does not aspire to resemble that
which currently exists but with a cool twist, nor to stuff all its value
into the margins of a popular genre format. It is authored, rather
than just designed; its intrinsic features take the form of complex and
multifaceted statements that it realizes at all levels of the modern
videogame, from core systems all the way up to the user interface. It is
messy and, therefore, alive.
Everything we see is built
from colourful, patterned tiles. Although there are perhaps twenty or
thirty different kinds, most are not mechanically distinct from one
another; all space is partitioned into two contiguous parts, ‘wall’
versus ‘not-wall’, with each patterned tile corresponding to one of the
two. Our first instinct is to label this a poor design choice because
its affordances are unclear. (Why should the player have to learn
through physical experience which tiles can be traversed and which
cannot when it could be made visually obvious?) This, however, would be a
mistake. Conventional thinking conditions us to believe clear
affordances are unequivocally good because we view videogame design as
an exercise in catapulting people towards the mythical content unicorn
lying beneath all of our systems; this belief becomes invalid, however,
when unclear affordances better support some other intrinsic purpose
lying elsewhere in the structure of the work, and that is the case here.
The environment of Problem Attic models the mind of the protagonist,
and the walls represent the tangled mess of every habit and belief he
has ever internalized. Each person possesses such walls; they are the
reason why we act against our own best interests, making the same
mistakes over and over again.
Here is another unfashionable
choice. Punishing us for touching the Cross Guys even though that is
exactly what we must do to proceed reeks of poor affordances; it seems
to place the design at cross purposes, obfuscating the rules of the
system and causing us to form an inaccurate cognitive model of how the
game works. Again, however, Attic demonstrates that clear affordances
are not unequivocally good. This game is about human beings, who result
not from mythical content unicorns but from a roiling maelstrom of
culture and fraying DNA. The Cross Guys are characters, not mechanics,
and the game characterizes them as simple-minded horndogs who give no
consideration to the protagonist’s goals and, in fact, seek solely to
gratify themselves at his expense. In their role as the protagonist’s
jailers they must usually be avoided; in their role as the wielders of
power, however, it is occasionally necessary to exploit them even when
this does us harm. (The mechanics deceive, in other words, because they
model deceptive power structures.) That the world forces some among us
to use the ugliest of personal traits to their advantage would, in any
other context, be considered a thoughtful bit of hard-won wisdom that
speaks to the human condition. In videogames we are, for many
discomforting reasons, unaccustomed to receiving such wisdom.
may not confront the Cross directly; it cannot be destroyed or
pacified. We must instead discover a circuitous route through a maze of
nearly-invisible wall tiles, the room’s muddy platforming permitting us
to feel the protagonist’s paralysing fear. Interestingly, pressing the
magical ‘R’ key here does not reset the stage as it normally would, but
instead fades the world to black before casting us out to the attic’s
entry point. This particular stage, I hereby surmise, is not a place for
trial and error, to learn or to grow; it is more like a wound that
won’t heal, a nightmare to which the protagonist returns nightly.
Attic changed the way I think about videogames. I am now convinced that
the virtues of clarity and craft, to which I had subscribed absolutely
as a matter of course, impose significant limitations on our expressive
potential that can be difficult to see until you play something like
DOET [Design of Everyday Things] judges the user’s needs most
important, and her perspective most valuable. It is about the apotheosis
of the user; it makes her into God, and with holy might it strikes the
fear of Her into objects and those who make them.
DOET, alongside all the important research around it, culminated in
something called User Centered Design, a philosophy in which “user
error” does not exist and programmers are sad.
This school teaches that if it’s not fun (or at the very least quick and
painless) to be taught about some feature, we shouldn’t include it;
that clarity is better than complexity; that elegance is better than
messiness; that one button is better than two. It teaches that the
purpose of a game is to explain itself to you, and that somewhere in the
act of explaining lies that game’s intrinsic value. We have thereby
converted the scariest, most contentious question of all (what should
this thing be?) from an artistic decision into a design decision.
belief in clarity and elegance, though it has yielded spectacular
results, is not the very best way to make videogames; it may not even be
a particularly good way. We suffer from the bar we’ve set for ourselves
and the burdens we place upon designers. We are wrongly convinced, even
in the critical community, that works like Problem Attic are unworthy
of attention solely because they prioritize different features and
challenge players in a way we deem to be unfashionable.
I plan on thinking much harder about how I evaluate potential game
features. “Because then the user doesn’t have to think” or “but how do
we teach that?” should not be trump cards in every single argument about
whether to include stuff. It’s easy to turn everything into a neat
little design decision, but making a few more artistic ones would be
better in the long term for users and for my sanity
I develop videogames for a living, but I spent last year
really hating videogames. I questioned how it was I could consume 60
hours of ‘content’ for Assassin’s Creed 3 yet feel utterly unsatisfied
by my act of consumption. I questioned what it was I had consumed, other
than my own time. I questioned what it was I sought from the game in
the first place. I questioned the nature of the ‘content’ it claimed to
offer me; privately I began to suspect it might not even exist.
I awoke from my yearlong stupor the night I encountered a game called Problem Attic by a person named Liz Ryerson.
is a story about how Steam, Twitter and the App Store came to exist.
It’s about how these services present themselves as our friends while
behaving as our enemies. It’s about how they stole the internet
from us, creating a place where everything is ‘free’ but liberty remains
unavailable. Before I can reclaim my lost appendages we must first reclaim something
more fundamental: Our language, the medium through which we think.
Consider the power inherent in the words ‘form’ and ‘content’. ‘Form’
describes what the things we make are; thus they who define form decide what things can be. ‘Content’ is more powerful still because it defines what we want;
they who define content decide what is and is not valuable. Like all
powerful words, ‘form’ and ‘content’ have a political history.
To Hegel what we want from our media is not merely a convenient way to
waste 60 hours of our lives: What we want is access to universal truths.
When we consider Art in Hegelian terms its purpose is not mysterious or
difficult to grasp. For him Art is simply one of three different kinds
of form (the other two being philosophy and religion) through which
humans access the same content: Geist, the omnipresent mind and spirit of living ideas.
Hegel once declared, famously and obliquely, that ‘art is dead’.
Scholars do not agree on precisely what he meant by this, but my
preferred interpretation suggests the art we fully understand is, by
definition, already in the past. Art of the present must be alien,
unfathomable and difficult to identify because it is of young
mind/spirit. It is the bleeding edge of truth, reaching beyond what is
achievable through discursive means to seize something new and untamed. Spelunky has a spirit I can feel as I play it. I need not feel anxious about whether its procedurally-generated elements (its Rogue-like
parts) permit some kind of ‘meaningful artistic statement’. Rather, it
is through enacting and observing the movement of these elements that
its spirit, the Spelunkengeist, shall gradually come to life.
I believe our intrepid capitalists of yesteryear used newspapers, and
other forms of mass publication, to introduce a new politics of form and
content to the world. Where Hegel used these terms to distinguish ‘the
work itself’ (form) from ‘the ideas behind it’ (content), the newspaper
uses them to distinguish ‘the machine that aggregates/distributes’ from
‘the writing that fuels this machine’. What once was called ‘form’ is
now ‘content’, and what Hegel would call content can no longer be
described; it has fallen so far into obscurity that I must resurrect a
19th century German term just to communicate it in English.
The concept of ‘replay value’, so critical to today’s hottest
newspaper-likes, stems directly from this formula: Since we evaluate
‘content’ quantitatively it follows that a publication or videogame
could increase the value of its ‘content’ either by improving yield
or reducing the cost of production. We have hereby come to prefer our
‘content’ the same way we prefer our pig feed: Smooth tasting, from an
Ikea-branded trough. Think about how a 19th century philosopher like
Hegel might regard the concept of ‘replay value’. Would he commiserate
with us about how the mind/spirit of romanticism just doesn’t make for
large enough murals? Or would we have to pull out a bunch
of obscure 21st century English words just to explain to him what the
hell we were talking about? It’s important to realize that ‘replay
value’ is not some timeless virtue sought by all media for all of
history. It is a political viewpoint wrapped in a sales pitch
perpetuated by people trying to improve the market position of their
mass-produced entertainment products. By appropriating the word
‘content’, which denotes what we want, our intrepid capitalist
marketers have steered us away from the conceptual, spiritual and
artistic content Hegel envisions. All we want now is more stuff for a
As a multicast medium the internet is not a
seller’s market; it is, in fact, the greatest buyer’s market of all
time. The writer’s predicament no longer involves convincing some
to make copies of her words; that part is practically free. Her
predicament now involves capturing the attention of an audience with
virtually limitless options available to it, then somehow converting
this hard-won attention into half of a living wage (presumably through
a pagan ritual like crowdfunding).
our intrepid capitalists sought to appropriate the concept of freeness
while appending a commercial twist: They planned for web services to
become free as in gratis,
turning “do it yourself” into “here, let me publish that for you in
exchange for the right to profit from it and oh, by the way, have a look
at this Chevy ad”. In the span of three or four years everything about
the internet changed: The do-it-yourself, Geocities-like, weird internet
of the mid ’90s became the professional, social networked,
boring internet we have today. We retroactively labelled this movement
‘Web 2.0’, a term describing the set of technologies and design/business
axioms that on the surface intend to anoint the user as a free (libre) contributor rather than powerless consumer while on the underside exploiting her contributions as freely given (gratis) ‘content’
to be sold as a commodity. The idea was to craft a sales pitch
around the prospect of creating Hegelian content, content as libre, while simultaneously converting readers’ contributions into ‘content’ as gratis to
fill the paper’s pages. They no longer intended to act as gatekeepers
between producer and consumer; all consumers would now become producers,
multicasting ‘content’ back and forth to one another through the ‘form’
of the all-in-one medium/product/town hall/marketplace the newspaper
would soon become.
Where the newspaper transfixed the reader by telling her what happened recently the web service would tell her what’s happening right now.
Where the newspaper monetized its audience through crude instruments
like subscriptions and broadly-focused mass advertising the web service
would seek to monetize everything: The user’s personal relationships,
her attention, her demographic data, her politics, her labour, her
secrets, her entire life. Our beleaguered dreamers would finally get
their wish. The user would no longer be a powerless consumer. Instead
she would become something much worse. She’d become ‘content’ itself, a
person qua commodity whose only real power lies in her potential to be
consumed. She would be a human AA battery, in other words, digested one
limb at a time by the hundreds of giant software systems now
descending upon her.
Gone is the HTML/CSS with which we contended in the MySpace era; gone is
the bloated wall of features we encounter every time we open
Facebook. Just like a videogame the Tweet™ is easy to learn, difficult to master and punctual with its feedback. (Twitter has excellent game feel.)
When we encounter a situation like Sarkeesian’s, something outside the
parameters of the sales pitch, our typical response is to blame it on
some hostile other (‘the trolls’) or some fundamental defect in the
internet. Though we may chide Twitter for failing to develop
effective anti-harassment policies we reason the blame must lie
ultimately with us users; after all, the sales pitch convinces us that
Twitter makes us free as in libre, and ‘a few (hundred
thousand) bad apples’ may therefore choose freely to do harm. We neglect
to consider the possibility that Twitter did not fail at anything; that
preventing harassment has never been Twitter’s goal because the service
has far more to gain from permitting this sort of bullying than it
does from preventing it (new and more interesting ‘content’, increasing
entrenchment in its role as town square, more investment from users,
etc…). As far as Twitter is concerned the ideal anti-harassment policy is just
effective enough to prevent Sarkeesian from leaving while simultaneously
permitting thousands of people to enjoy harassing her every day. In
this way Twitter doesn’t need to engage directly in the Charles Foster
Kane-style yellow journalism of its predecessors; it reaps the same
rewards (while incurring very few of the risks) by allowing users to do
so on its behalf. So long as we continue holding Twitter solely to the
standard of its sales pitch the service remains free (as in libre) to preside as a ‘neutral third party’ over the very culture wars it facilitates, dropping a Promoted Tweet™ or two into our timelines between all the vicious bile.
We ought to regard the Tweet™ suspiciously,
as a glorified status update tuned more towards Twitter’s data mining
business than to our ostensibly free expression. We ought to insist
Twitter shape itself around our work rather than shaping our work
eagerly into Twitter’s business model (and thanking it for the
privilege). We ought at least to demand Twitter use some of its
extraordinarily lucrative data mining expertise to fight the harassment
of our peers rather than tacitly affording it. Instead we fixate on the libre hand dangling a new social appendage in front of us while the gratis hand converts all our ‘freely given’ energy into its own money and power.
The ‘form’ of Twitter, like that of the newspaper, demands a constant
stream of new things to bury all the old ones. It wants there to be
cases in which we miss things so we’ll adopt the underlying assumption
that work should shoot past us like a copy of The New York Times
rather than stand in permanence like the Bible, awaiting our approach.
The bell curve we see is not the inevitable product of posting work on
the internet; it’s the product of routing our work through a host of
different web services designed to consume the new and then discard it.
We chide Twitter for how ineffectual its search functions are, how
challenging it is to obtain any legible historical record of our
contributions to the free dialog its sales pitch claims is taking place.
We ignore the implicit acknowledgement that Twitter does not want us to
remember this history; that in fact, Twitter wants us to
forget. It wants us to depend on new ‘content’ rather than dwelling
in the old. It wants us to have a presence to maintain rather than construct. It wants us to forget the name of the author we just read but remember to Tweet™
it at all our friends no more than two or three times. It wants to be
a windswept desert made from a billion atoms of homogeneous
and disassociated ‘content’, ‘freeing’ us to build castles in the sand.
The libre hand promises us an oasis while the gratis hand c converts the whole internet into a desert.
developers our game can be good or bad; we can self-promote or be
totally obscure; we can spend a year in development or three days. All
these variables are completely non-predictive. Nobody knows how success
on the App Store actually works and no one ever has; hiring some
ex-Apple consultant to help us would be about as effective
as ritualistically slaughtering a goat. The App Store is a madhouse in
which success is entirely arbitrary. Usually when we find
ourselves participating in an arbitrary selection process granting
invariably low odds of success we don’t call that ‘egalitarian’; we call
it buying a lottery ticket. Every game theorist knows lottery
tickets are a waste of our time and money. The mistake we make when
dealing with the App Store is, once again, watching only the libre hand as it offers us the chance of a generous reward for our hard work; we ignore the gratis
hand tossing our name into a hat. This is why, looking upon the
madhouse, our response is to assume there is some defect in the service,
perhaps poor ‘discoverability’ or a lack of curation. We neglect to
realize that from Apple’s perspective these are not defects.
Apple presides, as a ‘neutral third party’ of course, over a lottery
that generates ~30% royalties regardless of who wins. They have no
reason to ‘curate’ or to make our apps ‘discoverable’. Their goal is to
do just enough to keep players and developers imprisoned in the
‘ecosystem’, locking everyone inside a horrific Thunderdome of their
creation (oops, I mean a ‘walled garden’) while charging admission for
the privilege. When we observe today’s class of small,
broke, powerless game studios subsisting from tiny mobile project to
tiny mobile project, we typically attribute their existence to
an apathetic audience and/or soulless business executives. We neglect to
notice how convenient our ‘neutral third parties’ might find it that
these developers are incapable of renegotiating the royalties they pay
or, say, founding a new ‘ecosystem’ of their own. Today we see Valve
travelling in the same direction as Apple, and we wonder whether Gabe
Newell can ‘fix’ the madhouse. If you’re Gabe Newell the madhouse is not
Consider, most damningly of all, the ways in which the web service makes
our work interchangeable. We approach Twitter, Steam and the App Store
with the newspaper-like mentality that wider distribution is always
better. We neglect to realize the internet is a buyer’s market:
Maximum distribution means maximum competition between ‘content
creators’ alongside minimum risk for the marketplace itself. Not only
does this make it difficult for developers to carve out an audience; it
also creates tremendous downward pressure on the value of our work.
Anyone intending to charge money for their videogame faces an army of
competitors willing to give theirs away for less, or for free. The
audience sees little difference between one piece of work or another; it
wants what the medium tells it to want, so what it wants is ‘content’.
We do indeed face an existential threat. Our wallets, however, are the
only place we shouldn’t look. We fail to realize the closer we get to
‘free’ the higher the hidden cost, and the more our intrepid
usurpers profit from the ruin of everything around them.
the change I want must resemble the form of Attic itself: A tiny fire in a mound of corporate detritus, growing a little at a time.
years beforehand my thinking had actually been fairly
pro-capitalist; I often espoused the myriad benefits of currency and
commerce. What I never did was consider the problem in terms of
consumption versus communion. I realize now I had fallen for the sales
pitch. This is not to say, however, that I currently advocate some
bloody communist revolt circa 1917. Instead I believe in sublation as
Hegel describes it. The internet is not some idyllic communist utopia
ruined forever by capitalist invaders; that is not the
whole truth. Without capital the internet would be a weird
intellectual ghetto; without community it would be a hopeless corporate
nightmare. It was the coalescence of these forces that gave the
internet its mind/spirit and created the Information Age.
Neither force is capable of simply erasing the other; thus, the whole
truth must result from both of them. The only way forward is to let
them merge together into something completely new.
The heart of my complaint, then, is not merely that predatory
corporations exist on the internet. It’s that we don’t recognize them
for what they are. It’s time to accept what ‘free’ really means, and to
demand an equitable share of the proceeds our labour generates.
The most important tool you have against capitalist hegemony is
understanding the whole nature of the transactions you perform. Remember
you are not merely a ‘content creator’ if you don’t want to be. You
don’t have to alienate the form of your work from its content, shaving
all the edges off so it can exist as a grain of sand in someone else’s
desert. Make the work YOU want to make and shove it down the
We who Twitter views as ‘content creators’ now live in a world where,
paradoxically, the most anti-capitalist measure we could take is to
charge money for things. I believe we need to do this whenever possible.
Recall that Hegel models ideas as fundamentally historical:
Free structures of thought whose lineage stretches all the way back into
antiquity, guided forward by the recollection of past mistakes. Yet in
the capitalist dystopia we are quickly coming to inhabit there are no
‘ideas’ anymore. There is no form, no content and no libre; we live in a world where ‘free’ means gratis, ‘form’ means Twitter and ‘content’ means Tweets™.
Recall that appropriation is what capitalists do best. The goal of
appropriation is to erase history entirely: To focus solely on the
eternal now, divorced from all context, leaving us no basis on which to make choices.
Your latest project does not need to exist solely as two weeks’ worth of
viral bait in someone else’s ‘ecosystem’. The projects you’ve done in
the past do not need to languish as half-eaten corpses somewhere in a
forgotten database. Create a history for your work by interconnecting it
in meaningful and permanent ways (not just in Twitter mentions).
Provide paths from the new to the old. Connect it permanently to other
people and ideas so that these ideas can grow. Your work is not a
commodity; it’s alive. Build a home for it.