Thursday, 4 December 2014

Atheist Reformation

My short but violent road to renouncing my ideological commitment to neo-atheism was not an easy one. I didn't like it for a long time, & then once my experiences & education forced me to accept it, I sought some way to make a compromise, but there was precious little compromise to be had. Ultimately, I had to abandon it wholesale. My atheism is now nothing more that a shallow grave where the part of me that could have had faith in something is buried.

Neo-atheism isn't just a disavowal of the currently-popular organised religions, any more than being an anarchist merely requires not voting for major political parties. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of these ideas, in much the same way an anarchist resists the very possibility of centralised government. Neo-atheism is a reaction against the very notion of faith, the possibility of extending possibility to anything that isn't physically measurable. I never understood the hold-outs who expressed some kind of "agnosticism." I regarded it to be some kind of ideological or metaphysical bet-hedging, but in reality it's just atheism without the zealotry.

Now I'm left with faith in nothing but the measurable, the visible, & the narrowly possible. In essence, the domains of the physical sciences. There is no wonder here, no possibility, no real cause for hope. "Maybe there's something wondrous out there?" The atheist ponders, staring into the vacuum of space in a crude aping of spiritual rapture - seeking hope in the most hostile, anti-human environment outside of an active volcano - all the while unavoidably reflecting on their own inability to think beyond such a limited scope of potential, & pretending this limitation makes them superior. This is little different to the priest who take a vow of celibacy, & fashions this lost element of their humanity as a sign of superior dedication. And it is! It is a symbol of their dedication to God, & the ideals that He represents. What is the atheist sacrificing their faith in service to? What kind of dedication are they enacting?

For me, I guess it was mostly that I wanted to be dedicated to something, but faith is embarrassing when you've the limited imagination of the materialist. Things that don't make material sense are, after all, "magic" - stories for children. I didn't want to be a children. Also, as a reactionary progressive by nature, the stale conservatism of Christianity was a serious turn-off. Community itself was also never an attraction to me. Nevertheless, I longed for metaphysics, without even knowing what the concept meant.

Unfortunately, "more physics" is by far the least uplifting, enlightening, spiritual, or interesting form of metaphysics humanity has come up with. Only the dustbowl marriage of liberal capitalism to its corpse bride of scientistic Enlightenment could birth such a bankrupt understanding of the universe. And sure enough, as explained by James Hennessy in this Jacobin article more expertly than I could have, the interests of liberal capitalism & neo-atheism align almost in spite of themselves. What matters is not that Sam Harris is a bloodthirsty sociopath, or that Dwakins is a simpleton, or that Hitchens was as eloquent an apologist for imperialist authority as Kissinger. What matters is that their core beliefs - their total lack of faith in anything grander than dirt - is like a waterslide that, scrabble though they might, inevitably dumps them into a materialistic brutality.

Whatever good intentions these men might have, whatever the good character of ideological neo-atheists or militant anti-theists or whatever you want to call them, your metaphysical beliefs - what you place your faith in - is what protects you from the brutish & hollow realities of a universe governed by selective forces, by energy reacting to simple laws, by meat things rubbing up against each other.

I no longer have much truck with criticising the fundamental metaphysics of others. Their politics, sure, but even when I can see those politics stemming directly from their metaphysical assumptions - as is the case with Hitchens, Dwakins, et al - challenging those beliefs is a waste of time. Beyond that, a war over metaphysics is a permanent war, it's a war on a certain type of person, not a particular belief or a resource or some political grievance. I prefer to keep conflicts as specific as possible. Political struggles are difficult enough without expanding their scope outwards to include more or less everything of substance about a person.

So then why am I doing so right now, in this very post? Because these are my beliefs. Atheism, for better or worse, is my metaphysic - an empty hole where my faith should be. It is my religion, & I will criticise its doctrines as I see fit, with the righteous zeal of any True Believer. Not merely because I'm allowed to, but because to do so is my responsibility. No one properly understands the hollow emptiness of atheism without fully accepting it into their heart. Without living it, without letting it form the basis for your understanding of every thing, you have no basis to critique it to the depth that I can. It is, at its core, utterly nihilistic - it preaches that with our deaths, everything about our selves will be permanently extinguished, that we are nothing more than animated meat, following a series of biological impulses, chemical reactions, & physical laws.

There's a profound self-hate to this doctrine, an automatic misery that applies to all aspects of life that most of us cope with by simply pretending it isn't there. Some take solace in their intellectual superiority, like a priest taking pride in his willpower to abstain from sex. Others use what I call the YOLO Doctrine, which is to simply live this life to the Max & pretend that when death comes, they won't be gripped with the Fear. This is no ordinary fear, either. This is the despairing, immiserating Fear of oblivion that moved Lovecraft to write his Cthulian horrors - implacable & unknowable, a direct repudiation of the rationalist order that the Enlightenment respected above all else, & which justifies the neo-atheists in their lack of metaphysical imagination. The absolute nothingness of non-material existence.

No matter how much you learn about the materials of the universe, no matter how far you look into the cosmos, no matter how deep into the space between particles or into the possibilities of mathematics you go, you can never reach beyond the Cthulian nightmares occupying the darkness beyond What You Can Know. They represent oblivion, the inescapable final destination for the death-cultists of the New Atheism. Dwakins derides the Christian God as a "god of the gaps", as it were, as the convenient filler explanation for any uncertainty. Because Dwakins is an idiot, & his fellow atheists are also idiots, we fail to understand: as you stare into the nothingness of those gaps, the nothingness stares back into you. Christians aren't afraid of ignorance, they're afraid of becoming monsters. They're afraid of becoming Atheists.

Nietzsche foretold our coming, & he saw in us a chance to rise above the weaknesses of Christianity's compassion & privileging of the weak. So far, as the guiding metaphysicians of Western imperialism, we atheists have done our job well. We chase child-molesting pastors with an Inquisitorial glee, all the while indifferently dropping cluster-bombs on children & drowning refugees in the ocean, knowing full well no higher authority will ever hold us to account. It is no coincidence that Sam Harris' atheism lets him talk calmly about turning Saudi Arabia into a bowl of glass - that is what his beliefs have conditioned him to do. For the atheist, death is the great equaliser, its inevitability divorcing it from any possibility of tragedy. It is an escape from responsibility, not an arrival at judgment. It is also, perhaps most distastefully, what allows our leaders to commit these atrocities with their mouths full of scripture. In a secular society, there is nothing to fear from religious heresy.

With no God to judge us, nothing is true, & everything is permitted. So we sit in our tiny secular universe, devoid of wonder or possibility, reflecting on horrors from the mechanised hell of the Holocaust, to the destructive wizardry of nuclear weapons, to the clinical terror of long-range missile strikes, to the detached banality of drone assassinations, and we wonder - why are things so awful? Why can't we address climate change? Why do all these religious people hate us so much? Why am I so depressed even though I did everything I was supposed to do? There are holes in us that no amount of sugary foods or internet pornography or exquisitely-produced melodrama can fill.

The most chilling part of this ignorance is its genuineness, which I can attest because I feel it too. I don't feel like, in order to be moral, I need the guidance of some higher being threatening me with punishments or tempting me with rewards. The thing is, though - and this is something Christians can't really say, so I'll say it for them - you do. You clearly do, because your behaviour is monstrous beyond anything committed in the history of time. The scale on which we deal death is quite literally without parallel, and it scarcely seems to register with us at all. For the atheist, death is a terrifying inevitability, & we don't want to think about it, so we don't. For the atheist, killing an "insurgent" via a video game attached to a killer robot is, ultimately, just turning a clock forward 10, 20, 40 years. Death comes for us all - you'd like it to be later rather than sooner, but beyond that...we're all just dust, on a long enough timeline.

It takes concepts like ensoulment & divine judgment to make us think of anything beyond that, and these are concepts that you can't internalise simply on the basis of utility. Sure, they might be useful from a cultural perspective - I pontificate as my democratically elected leader sends my fellow Australians to Iraq to kill brown people I know nothing about - but that doesn't restore my ability to be spiritual or whatever. That nerve cluster was long ago severed & cauterised in the searing-hot rhetoric of the neo-atheist writers who oversaw my intellectual awakening. So what am I supposed to do now?

I honestly don't know, but at the very least we need to confront the reality: secular atheism has left us morally bankrupt, entirely at the mercy of imperialist forces of capitalist materialism & scientistic rationalism. The wonder is stripped from our lives & replaced with plastic toys & bright murder simulators, & anything more meaningful than negative gearing is met with the weary disinterest of people who truly believe they are headed to an inescapable oblivion either way, where everything they care about will vanish to such a totalising extent they can't even imagine it. It's time we confronted, honestly, the reality of our terrifying death-driven metaphysic, & give some serious intellectual effort to a Reformation of our own.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Political Reality

I've been talking about "winning and losing" in politics, which is a concept I understand intuitively. For many, that seems very abstracted & too simple. How can such an understanding of political struggle translate into actual events?

Let's hear from Adam Brereton, who's forgotten more about Australian politics than I'll ever know. He wrote this amazing piece after the last election, about the function of Cory Bernardi's ridiculous tome "The Conservative Revolution" as a victory cry for Australian conservatism. If you want a copy of the book to read for yourself, paperbacks on Amazon start at 38 cents, but you can get the gist from Brereton's column.

The habit I've observed in many of my fellow Australians - of viewing ideological conflict as a side-show that plays out on the margins of things that actually matter - strikes me as the greatest asset of our era's revolutionaries. The policies of government, even at their most obligatory or banal, are more important than you, your career, your safety, your assets, & your relationships. Whether you voted for them or not, every decision that gets enacted is the focused will of 27-odd million people. These decisions create the world we live in, in a more profound way than has ever been true before.

Next to these decisions, your individuality is meaningless. Many are awed by the vastness of space, but that empty vacuum is of vanishing importance in comparison to the focused intent of that many human beings. Framing the individual as sovereign, painting politics as childish wrangling among idiots, presenting the movements of capital as mysterious & explicable only to experts, these idioms allow your will to be directed - along with everyone else's - to serve the interests of a powerful few. They are all misdirection designed to maintain power, not for evil, or for good. Just FOR those who can control it. This isn't a conspiracy, it's just governance.

Contrary to what our discourse encourages you to believe, you don't have to sacrifice everything to demand what's right. When a white man tells you that your way of life is threatened by a few hundred asylum seekers wanting to live on a continent with an average of less than one person per square kilometer, you know that's a lie. An intelligent mind asks "but what if I'm wrong?", and a clever leader uses that self-reflection to paralyse moral reasoning. After a lifetime of this, you can barely recall what a moral imperative is. Your fearful self-doubt is a security blanket - it's never led you wrong before, and the consequences for a wrong decision could snuff out everything you've worked for. You're merely being cautious, patient, even-handed, waiting until the facts are in. In reality, you're making excuses for your indifference, while others suffer. A parking fine you didn't earn will throw you into a rage, but an innocent man dying in jail at the hands of police is just a harsh reality of life. Some part of you knows these things don't add up, but it must be reality, because it's What's Always Happened.

It isn't you who gets harmed by your inaction. You're rewarded for it with security, stability, comforts. All you have to do is remain too uncertain of yourself to draw a line, to say "you will not do this. We demand it, and you will comply."

I'm not trying to move you to some dangerous radical activity. Like me, you'll only take risks when you need to. What would you do, anyway? Throw a bin at a cop? Write an angry letter? Donate to a political party? I don't even know, but I'm not interested in whipping you into a frenzy anyway. All I want you to do is pay attention. Know what's happening, teach yourself to exercise your own moral principles, to react with disgust & outrage; the most primal human responses. Do this, so that when your friends & family ask you "does this seem wrong to you" instead of automatically falling back on "who knows" or "I'm not sure" or "I don't really care about politics," you can guide them, behave like a citizen of a nation, instead of being yet another example of the normality of ignorance & apathy, cowed by condescending talk of complexity & dire consequences.

Don't mistake the comfortable continuity of your own life for a lack of change in the nation, or the world. Things are are changing more quickly than they ever have. Revolutions used to play out in gutters red with the blood of patriots in the capital, while everywhere else life continued more or less as normal. Now, a momentary failure of political will in the capital (safely removed from major populated areas, as it was designed to be) sees drastic changes across the entire continent. These changes take hold in a matter of weeks, not decades. No marching armies, no pockets of resistance, no messages carried across country on horseback, no communal bonds of shared history telling you you have every right to resist. Just a handful of white people raising their hand, and people go to jail, can't register their car, are deported from their country, can't get food, can't pay rent. You can no longer opt out of society like our ancestors could. Now, all politics is for keeps, and every change matters to everyone.

History is written by those who show up. Cory Bernardi has written his version of history - do you know what it is? Do you care? You don't like Tony Abbott's decisions, but do you know why he makes them? Could you tell someone why they're wrong? Why not? What is happening in your life that you think is more important than understanding these issues? When you dismiss someone like me who swears & shouts & calls for change, as being unhinged & unstable & lacking perspective, why is that? Why don't you care as well? What makes your calm indifference wiser than my insistent attentiveness?

When you read history, it's a history of politics. That's what in the books - who fought whom, what treaties were signed, who got assassinated, who won the election, where the borders were redrawn. Our lifetime won't be any different. What makes you think you're in a position to ignore these changes? At what moment in recent history do you think these things ceased to matter? Was it around the time telecommunication allowed changes to be enacted remotely, instantaneously? Or was it the time everyone became instantly connected to the minutia of everyone else's life, 24/7? Was it when wars started being fought via remote control from the other side of the world? Was it when we discovered that every inch of the globe had finally been revealed to us, that there were no more worlds to conquer? Perhaps it was it when we realised our very presence was ruining a planet that for our entire history was assumed to be infinite?

Politics is real, it's for keeps, & it's happening every day with a frankly miserable relentlessness. Cory Bernardi knows this, & it fills him with a revolutionary zeal. It doesn't matter than he's a sniveling immoral idiot - he turned up, he joined the winning team, he wrote the version of history that suits him. You can't be bothered reading 2000 words, meanwhile he wrote 200 pages intended to motivate & direct a new generation of political agents. And if he's lucky, 50 years from now, school children will read some version of it.

Everything around you compels you to go to work, to keep your head down, to buy the things you like because you deserve them. Everything around you compels you to avoid the morass of politics that is 90% boring & 10% horrible, & seemingly too massive for you to influence. What are you, compared to 27 million? You misunderstand - Australia doesn't exist to serve you. You exist to serve it, and in so doing, hopefully have the privilege of seeing your will reflected in the world around you. That's what gets Cory Bernardi out of bed every morning. But you don't have a lifetime to dedicate to leadership, like Cory Bernardi does. You have other priorities, so all you can do is pay attention, make demands, be informed, and don't look the other way when someone says or does something wrong.

You'll lose friends, you'll get upset, you'll have a bad time. None of that matters. Nothing you ever do will matter as much as one of the decisions these unqualified sociopaths make every time Parliament is in session. The matter deserves your attention - indeed, your emotional investment. No one's asking you to go to jail, or fall on a bayonet, or burn down a building, yet these are all things men & women have done throughout history for countries lesser than ours, sometimes with the stakes much lower.

All you have to do is pay attention, and treat politics with the respect it deserves. You just have to care about it, because it matters. You don't even have to read Cory Bernardi's nauseating book, & contrary to popular belief, you don't even have to vote.

By and large, people are right when they say only the deranged care about politics, but this should alarm you rather than move you to idle indifference. Politics is not beneath you, you are beneath politics. We all are, and if we don't take part meaningfully, it'll roll right over us and build us a future we spend the rest of our lives despising.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Inherited Entitlement Brings Out The Worst In Us

[This article is an experiment in writing in a particular style, one which I don't especially admire. It shouldn't be taken as representative of my views necessarily, & certainly not of how I write.]

As a child, my white anglo-saxon protestant grandparents served as an excellent counter-point to my white anglo-saxon parents. However, as I grow older and the time approaches for me to have children of my own, I lament the new generation of grandparents as they increasingly fail to live up to the high bar set by the Greatest Generation.

They weren't always perfect, with their casual racism and gender essentialism, but they were colourful characters, possessing a kind of black-and-white morality mixed with almost pagan ideals about virtue. World War II gave them a strange mixture of optimism and pessimism - anything was possible, but at the same time the entire banking system could collapse at any moment. They were stoic, no-nonsense people who taught me the value of respecting my superiors and of unfailing politeness, yet would frequently have a couple of whiskeys at the senior's bar & start singing bawdy songs at the top of their lungs. These contradictory attitudes and behaviours helped me understand that nobody is ever one thing, that even the most white-bread battle-hardened patriot was a patchwork of virtues and flaws, jostling each other to create people who always focused on doing what was right for their family and country. Their approach never made much sense to me, as a child more interested in my Game Boy than stories of the horrors of war, but I learned from them all the same.

I look at their replacements, the so-called " Baby Boomers", and despair. Gone is the world-wearied wisdom of their predecessors, replaced with an endless, high-pitched narcissistic whine about negative gearing and the cost of immigration. Don't get me wrong, my grandparents' generation could be racist as hell, but their racism had a purity to it - a genuine belief that some people were just Better. I never thought I'd come to view this kind of prejudice with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, but the Boomers have found a way: by framing their own particular brand of self-aggrandising racism in economic terms.

Non-white immigrants, for Boomers, aren't a problem because of differing cultural beliefs, or even an absence of Good Breeding, but instead by presenting an imaginary economic burden. Immigrants are stealing jobs, costing valuable tax dollars, having anchor babies all over the place. This self-interest is the most tiring kind of racism I can think of. Gone are the spurious virtue-based justifications for xenophobia, replaced with the cold, detached greed of the bean-counter. What kind of example is this going to set for my own children? Reducing people to mere economic inconvenience? For my grandparents, the threat presented by the Other was existential. For the Boomers, they're an unacceptable dent in the bottom line.

How can these Boomers be trusted to offer my children a useful counter-point to my own values, as my grandparents did for me? While us sorry Millenials struggle with the tribulations of actual economic difficulty, of a depressed job market and skyrocketing rates of mental illness, how can these self-interested martyrs be relied upon to teach a new generation the harsh lessons of history? My grandparents' generation derived their understanding of suffering from tank warfare, from the Kokoda Track, from the Depression. Boomers are haunted instead by the spectre of The Youth failing to surrender their seat on the train, or having their headphones turned up too loud. The Greatest Generation taught me that unimaginable sacrifices could be made in the interests of safety and prosperity, that you could survive the most lethal circumstances and go on to live an exciting life where every moment is a miraculous gift. The Boomers, inheritors of this hard-won prosperity, will teach my children that even if you have three investment properties it's an unacceptable affront for unemployed youth to expect the kind of free education they enjoyed in the '70s.

If this is the kind of example my children can expect, I despair for the future. Boomers have no concept of responsibility, no concept of hardship. They're softened by technology, with one hand out grasping for middle-class welfare while the other taps an email to The Australian demanding we close our borders to those suffering overseas. The Greatest Generation understood all too well the realities of war, but these Boomers consider refugees nothing more than a cost-benefit analysis that doesn't weigh sufficiently in their favour.

My grandparents didn't teach me to be a racist - my own parents were on hand to put that particular nonsense in its context. They did, however, teach me spiritual lessons. What it means to be an Australian, what it means to pay the cost for prosperity in blood and suffering. What are the Boomers going to teach their grandchildren? To view people as economic inconveniences, to treat young people with scorn for failing to enact the same courtesies their parents earned, and they expect to inherit with no effort? This concept of inherited entitlement is at the core of the Boomer ideology: a constant, justified fear that their own example has failed to garner them the same respect their parents earned the hard way. The Greatest Generation died in droves to ensure their children would have safe access to free education, but Boomers balk at merely paying their taxes. This isn't the example I want set for my children.

I see little reason to hope for improvement. Boomer entitlement is a pervasive influence in our national media, and as my children grow up and use their technology to access their national discourse, I fear they'll be wired-in 24/7 to a narrative of petty economic wrangling and political self-interest. They won't be fooled by the smokescreen of endless think-pieces about public transport etiquette and the ways sharing photos will somehow un-make our presumably excellent national character, but the underlying message will seep in: Australians are greedy, self-absorbed narcissists, inheriting an unearned prosperity that exists only to be squandered, while ensuring none of it is shared with those experiencing real hardship.

My message to these Boomers is simple: grow up, and start taking your responsibilities seriously. Put down your stock portfolios and cease this empty-headed staring at the Murdoch press. Your country is decaying under your sorry influence, and your grandchildren deserve the same kind of gravitas and depth I was fortunate to absorb from my grandparents' generation. Worry less about where young people sit on the train, and more about how they're going to retire after a lifetime with no job security. Stop talking about selfies, and start talking about a lifetime of student debt.

And for crying out loud, stop being suckered by chain emails. You're embarrassing everyone.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Double-Speak

I want to highlight a popular mode of contemporary double-speak, exemplified in this short Guardian piece by one Peter Preston. He's bemoaning that John Oliver airs his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on the US' HBO, rather than on a British broadcaster, from which political satire apparently originates. That's fine. He then suggests this came about because British broadcasters have no stomach for "digging the boot in" & speaking truth to power, which is also fine.

The clever ruse at play here is the attribution of Britain's satirical cowardice to an environment of "huff-puff, humourless outrage", or what we in Australia refer to as "political correctness gone mad". The prestidigitation is to present John Oliver's success as caused (or at least enabled somehow) by American culture's more-relaxed attitude towards politically oppressive speech. He offers some examples of the "problem" at work in recent British discourse:

Jeremy Clarkson receives a "final warning" from the BBC for mumbling the n-word in 2012.

The BBC's apology for Iain Lee's casual racism on his breakfast program.

The Daily Mail lambasting Sandi Toksvig for comparing to Ed Miliband to a terminally ill child.

This is a patently idiotic position to take if one knows anything at all about the cultures of these two places, which is why he doesn't say it directly; his statements refer instead to a more-general absence of "bite" in British political satire that renders it lame next to the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His examples, however, all uniformly involve examples of institutional backlash against insensitive speech.

Aside from being factually ridiculous from a cultural standpoint, this shamelessly dishonest commentary paints over Oliver's total aversion to insensitive speech of exactly this sort, and the numerous examples of American satirists - such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report - being harshly criticised by the public for insensitive speech. John Oliver has indeed demonstrated a masterful ability to deliver timely and hilarious political satire, but he has done so uniformly without straying into the kind of casual denigration of minorities that has plagued vacuous, irrelevant dinosaurs like Jeremy Clarkson or frat-boy misogynists like Daniel Tosh.

This is the double-speak that ossified champions of lazy mainstream maligning of minorities resort to in 2014. "Look how much I love progressive, popular acts like John Oliver" they announce to establish their connection to a time post-1990, "sure would be nice if Britain allowed casual racism huh" comes the completely non-sequitur follow-up. This is not only utter nonsense when spelled out clearly, it's also a slimy attempt to "claim" John Oliver as one of their ilk of rapidly-aging buffoons. In reality Oliver obviously goes to considerable lengths to avoid speaking insensitively, despite his platform on HBO offering him an opportunity to do so.

Herein lies the actual reason John Oliver is a rising star of political satire and Jeremy Clarkson is Britain's most widely-exported non-lethal embarrassment. While Clarkson clings to a simpler age when the absence of social media protected celebs from the consequences of their toxic casual racism (along with more serious crimes), Oliver instead navigates the new age of public accountability via an ingeniously simple method: he just doesn't act like a disgusting piece of shit. While Peter Preston may share Clarkson's view that refraining from racist or sexist speech is so difficult that "even the angel Gabriel would struggle to survive with [it] hanging over his head," figures like Oliver give the lie to their shrill whine that moving with the times is impossibly difficult whilst still managing to be humorous and critical.

So now they resort to desperate co-option of those who succeed without indulging in the moral shortcomings of entertainers past. Don't fall for this rhetorical misdirection: the downwards-punching cowardice of British (and Australian!) comedy is far more detrimental to its success than the rapidly-burgeoning public insistence on political correctness. The "we just need to convince the public it's OK to be racist again!" crowd of decaying social warriors are on the wrong side of history. Disembark from their doomed bandwagon now, while you still have any credibility left! Complaining about political correctness is going to be the future equivalent of your racist grandparent who complains there are "too many black people on television these days."

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Feelings About Woodwork

My family has a long history with woodwork. Both my parents are capable furniture restorers, and my father has created several pieces of Australian history out of railway sleepers combined with his own talent & ingenuity. He makes fancy joints and uses rulers & whatnot. My mother not only restores furniture but has an astounding gift for wood carving, limited only by her refusal to acknowledge it's brilliance. My grandfather made walking sticks, when he was alive, beautiful hand-made things for men & women of assorted sizes. My other grandfather has restored houses in much the same way a very hungry person makes a sandwich - with a kind of desperate vigour, the results of which are usually strange but always reflective of a competent, if disordered, mind.

I've picked up a few things about the nature of working with wood over the years by osmosis, which gives me a profound insight into how little I understand woodworking as an activity. Dad's shown me plenty of wood-related things over the years, but in my childhood I never really understood its significance. As a truly aware child of my age, I was far more interested in computers, which in the early 90s were just starting to become routinely commercially available. My father used to build them out of parts, an activity I was enraptured by but incapable of really understanding. The notion seemed alien; objects were objects, they can't be broken down to components & rebuilt as something else. A pile of chipboards, like a pile of boards, was just stuff. The transformation of stuff into objects was dark sorcery. Still is.

I think about woodworking a lot when I read through job applications. As I peruse what must be one of the thousands of ads for jobs that aren't clear about what they involve, it's stark just how much like woodworking they aren't. There was a person, once, who in an environment made largely out of wood decided to make some of that wood be a flat surface at waist height, and that person took it upon themselves to tear down an entire tree, rip it to pieces, and endeavour to turn it into a table. I wonder often what the world looks like to that person, a world made entirely out of potential, of possible becomings. To see a forest and see an effectively infinite opportunity to create tables, chairs, clubs, rowboats, houses. I imagine what it must be like, to spend a day tearing down a tree and go to bed barely able to contain the possibilities it represents. To wake up the next day halfway out of bed already, warming your hands, ready to strip bark, cut limbs. The next day, plane the damn thing or saw it into boards or whatever other dark rituals are necessary to contort trees into furniture.

My own environment is made of very different stuff. My potentials are amorphous & absent, but nevertheless real. I drag myself out of bed after an hour of idleness, a vague hope that if I wait long enough, I may die for no apparent reason. Having arisen, haunted by the spectre of the disappointment of my society, my parents, my girlfriend, I try to contort my own limbs into a vaguely human shape before sitting at my computer. Still fuzzy from the small death of sleep and my mind slowly clawing its way into a full-blown despair, I begin scouring my environment for opportunities to enhance my own survival chances. Do I want to be an ADVERTISING SUPERSTAR? Am I a BUBBLY PERSONALITY? Do I have WHAT IT TAKES TO CLOSE THE SALE EVERY TIME? Perhaps I have the knack to be the BARISTA OF THE YEAR. Perhaps, if I really suppress my creative instincts, I could be an OFFICE ROCK STAR who TAKES DATA ENTRY TO THE NEXT LEVEL. I read these opportunities in my environment sitting at a desk made of pulped wood, and wonder if that first person to tear down a tree in order to turn it into a way of life for the next however many weeks it takes to make a table out of shit you found growing in your yard, ever woke up wishing he would just fucking die already.

The concept of being alienated from ones labour isn't new. That was Marx's entire schtick, if anyone's not familiar with the man's work. He was concerned that being alienated from labour would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a living being, but that doesn't sound too much like the words of a PUBLIC RELATIONS WHIRLWIND. He didn't know that in 200 years we'd all have essentially unlimited access to cheap furniture made of wood pulp, and that by that time we'd have cut down like 50% of the world's trees. He probably suspected. He was pretty canny about shit like that.

See, my parents aren't woodworkers. My Dad was an electrical engineer with a Ph.D, he worked in research and eventually moved into a management position. My Mum worked in an office at a primary school once my brother and I got the fuck out of her hair. They work on furniture as a hobby. So maybe I shouldn't be comparing my mythic woodsmith's daily grind to a career, maybe I should think instead what activities in my own life reflect this style of living, the simple abstracted action of taking some stuff & transforming into something I can use, with my own hands. Cooking came to mind first, but I don't really do any cooking because like woodwork, it strikes me as confusing sorcery practiced by people who still have their ability to taste things. There IS something, though: smoking.

When I smoke, I take a filter out of a bag, place it carefully in a paper, awkwardly pull off a pinch of tobacco (try not to spill any! That shit is expensive) and place it in the paper with the filter. Then I carefully roll it up, lick the thing, then finish it off. Ta-da! My own tiny piece of creation, my own small exercise in terraforming my environment, a sense-of-agency hobby kit. Then I set the hateful little thing on fire and absorb it into myself, imagining the essence of it mixing with whatever foul clockwork & steam forces me to keep living, doing imperceptible damage. This is my engagement with creation, what connects me to that one Noble Savage that so obsesses the white male imagination since Rousseau, I guess. That figure of legend who looked at a tree and saw a table. I look at a pile of bagged junk & turn it into a slow, painful death.

This is why, in part, when faced with job listings I desperately want a smoke, even when I've 'quit'. The nonsense of job ads makes me long for that fictional time when your job was clear to you every morning, when you invested in it every ounce of your spirit. When you could look into the eyes of your peers and say "I am a woodworker" and they would nod, the truth of that statement plainly evident from your creations. You would sit at your table, run your hands over it, remember fondly every part of the wood, every notch, every line, every...join, I guess? Whatever woodwork is made of, you'd feel it, and you'd remember the process fondly. Perhaps you'd take some solace in knowing some day your children would sit at it with their family, but even if something happened to it...shit, the whole damn world is practically made of wood! What could possibly go wrong? So long as humans have hands & ingenuity, they'd never run out of tables. I wonder what that fictional person would say to me if I told him in my time, we cut most of it down because people don't like to have to touch their own arseholes with their hands.

In our age, we've alienated ourselves from our environment to such a staggering extent that urban middle class fuckwit might as well be a member of another species. The very concept of wilderness is as an Other, a scary place Somewhere Else where there are Animals and whatnot, a dangerous land where you have to wipe your shit off with your fingers. I don't long for that place, I'm no shoeless hippy, I hate trees and I hate nature. I don't miss the Olden Days, or imagine myself as a Noble Savage, but I do often wonder, when looking at job ads, or waiting in bed hoping for death, or constructing a cigarette out of raw materials I extracted from the environment by handing a bored-looking dude some money, what it must be like to look at the stuff the world is made of in terms of raw creative potential, an opportunity not for communion with the untouched splendour of nature or some other nonsense, but as a raw material for realising the awesome power of human ingenuity. To have a Problem, and cast about yourself for the Stuff to create a Solution. Instead, I live in a world where all objects are designed. Every chair, table, computer, wall, sidewalk, power line, telephone, everything placed with purpose. There's no potential here; the potential is always already realised, there's nothing left to touch. The trees in my neighbourhood were placed there, carefully, with intent. They Belong to someone. Everything, we are told, is as it should be, as it needs to be. Even if for some reason I went out into the wilderness, if I were caught cutting a tree down I'd be arrested and hauled back into my urban origin-story & fined or thrown in jail. You can't just go...fucking with things.

So instead I sit at my computer wondering what sort of SALES GOD I've always wanted to be, how DYNAMIC I am on a scale of WIZARD to PARADIGM-SHIFT, and wonder in bafflement why I feel this compulsion to leave it all behind and destroy something & turn it into something different, something I can use, something that has meaning. Why would I want to go backwards? Do I want to wipe my arsehole with my hand? If the past was so great, why don't I go die of tuberculosis? It's because I don't want to go to the past, I don't want to leave the modern world behind. It's because I'm utterly alienated from everything around me. I didn't earn any of it, none of it reflects my cleverness or ingenuity or even just old-fashioned willpower or brute strength. Everything I own was designed by someone else, built by someone else, intended for someone else, most of it belongs to someone else.

Nothing in my world will suffer my interference with it, like a lover that will service my every need so long as I promise to never touch them.

(Inspiration from @Hoskingc & @Beliael. Thanks guys. Follow them on Twitter dot com!)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

On Language Most Foul

It has come to my attention that there's something of a generational gap with regard to swearing, as in those of an older generation seem convinced that folks my age (mid-20s, let's say) just swear all the time for no reason at all and generally don't even give a fuck. I'd like to claim that that's a misunderstanding.

Let's consider some swearing:

Pictured: bad times online

Now, I'm not going to mount a defense of the conduct of "@Soul_James" here. The man is obviously a cretin, and simply out to cause mischief on the line. However, the response by '@infinite8horizo' is something I hear a lot, & this exchange neatly captures the language dispute I want to talk about. Let's break it down:

'@infinite8horizo' (I'm just going to call him Peter) is upset here because '@Soul_James' (I'll just refer to myself in the first person) has sworn at him - eg, used 'offensive language'. In this case, the word 'fuck'. It's a word I use a lot, and most commonly refers to a sex act, the act of fucking. You can check out the etymology of fuck on Wikipedia if research is your thing, but it refers to sex, basically. It's got a lot of diverse, mostly negative or emphatic uses in contemporary English, but it mostly refers to fucking. Let's consider some other exciting modern swears!

  • Shit, is another favourite of mine, refers almost exclusively to excrement; faeces.
  • Dick, refers to a penis, or the male phallus for those who enjoy classics.
  • Arse, or ass for the Americans, refers to your buttocks or anus region in general.
  • Cock, penis again.
  • Piss, is urine. Not really a swear word in Australia so much anymore, incidentally.

So there's a few. Notice a theme there? All of them are related to bodily functions! That's not a coincidence - swear words are words you're not supposed to say, or at least not in 'polite society'. These words are considered swear words because they refer to unmentionable acts - the necessary functions of the body, the acts that bring out our animal nature. The taboo behind these words stems from an age where we liked to pretend we didn't have to fuck and shit and piss all over the place, so the words describing those terms are taboo (but we can refer to them via their medical euphemisms, like urine, faeces, sexual intercourse, etc).

Now, back to Peter and myself. I mostly use those words as a means of transgression, of calling attention to something other people don't like attention called to. I don't think it's appropriate for people to be ashamed of their bodily functions or avoid referring to them, so to reflect this I refuse to acknowledge social standards of reference to them. I'll talk about fucking and pissing as I wish, & I'll utilise their descriptors in general language as if they're normal words, which they should be. There's nothing intrinsic to those words (or any words) that make them automatically 'bad', it's an association we place upon them as being unacceptable/taboo. I reject that, as obviously Peter doesn't, to the point where he (ostensibly) found my language too pernicious (a fancy word for 'fucked-up') to speak to me.

For a historical example of this sort of thing in action, you can look back to some olde worlde swears, like:

  • God damn it!
  • Jesus Christ!
  • To hell with this!

We pretty much say this sort of shit as we please nowadays, because blasphemy isn't a big deal like it once was. Even folk of Peter's generation, unless they're especially devout, will use these as their go-to for exclaiming irritation & generally expressing the sort of things I use shit and fuck and fuckshit to express. I'll also use these blasphemous options sometimes, but as they lack the transgressive aspect of the earlier examples, they're not as rewarding for me personally.

So having outlined why I say those sorts of words all the time, and why they only really bother prudes who think we should live our lives alienated from our bodily functions as if we're ashamed of being human, are there words I won't say? What are the Swear Words of Tomorrow, if the bodily function ones are out of style? Well, this will vary from place to place obviously, but there are a fair few words I'm very serious about not using, actually. Let's have a look at some, carefully!

  • F*ggot, a male homosexual.
  • Tr*nny, a transgender woman.
  • N*gger, a black person (originally African-American, but has kind of expanded)
  • C**n, an indigenous Australian (not sure if this one gets used elsewhere)
  • Bu*g, same as above.
  • D*ke, a lesbian.
  • Go*k, an Asian person.
  • Sl*t, a sexually-active woman.

Now, if you don't know some of those words, that's probably good. They're quite common in Australia, though becoming less-so. Obviously, these are mostly concerned not with bodily functions or blasphemy, but with identity. There are a few other words, like b*tch, which I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometime blurt out in a bad moment, but as a general rule I don't say. These are some fucking swear words, because saying them causes actual harm to people. It doesn't just offend them (not that that isn't worth considering), but harms and oppresses them. Just saying those words is a kind of bullying, which isn't true about sex words or poop words. Even if I'm mad at someone to whom these labels apply I won't use them, because I want to destroy them on my own terms, not via reference to some institution that marginalises them. That's chicken-shit behaviour.

This is the point I want to make behind all this: swearing isn't just some generational quirk, or arbitrary collective consciousness, it's a reflection of values. The things you won't refer to or discuss shows the things you're ashamed or for other reasons think ought not to be mentioned 'in polite society'. If someone says to you that's it's fine to call a woman a 'b*tch', & that to say otherwise is 'political correctness gone mad', but they get offended if you call them a 'fucking pile of garbage', then what they're saying is that it's fine to denigrate a woman specifically as a woman, but to refer to sex in their presence is morally unacceptable. If you're like my ancient grandparent who complains about 'so many n*ggers everywhere these days' but acts like you just took a shit on her mat if you say 'god damn it grandma don't say that shit', what you're saying is that you're fine with slavery, but being reminded that everybody poops is an inconvenience you should never have to be exposed to.

So, consider these social ramifications when you choose your words. Despite never being a person who was comfortable with oppressing others, as an aggressive little shit who loves to argue & hurl abuse I found it difficult initially to stop using some of these terms (language habits can be hard to break; f*g, b*tch, and 'gay' as a negative were particularly troublesome to drop entirely). It's not that hard though, ultimately, and you'll be amazed how quickly they disappear from your vocabulary. Just like that, you can stop worrying about inadvertently offending people or making them feel unsafe/unwelcome around you! Your vocabulary will pick up the slack in other ways, believe me.

This guy was actually a lot of fun to talk to and dished it out pretty good.

PS. There's far more that could be said about this subject, obviously, but I just wanted to cover these basics, so don't load me up with comments reminding me about swear words I didn't mention, or the complex linguistic history of taboo language, or side issues like non-verbal swearing (hand gestures etc) unless you have something profound to add. Because otherwise I'll react with scorn.

PPS. I could and will do an entire entry on political correctness, because that's Some Important Shit.

PPPS. Blasphemy is more complicated than I gave credit to here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Non-Gamer Plays Gone Home

[The following was written by my partner Zoe, immediately after playing through Gone Home on my PC. I haven't edited it in any meaningful way, these are entirely her words.]
I live with a bunch of nerds. Clever, progressive nerds who like to play video games and tell me all about them. Because of this I like to think that I know a little bit more about video game theory than your average disinterested twenty-something woman. I have curled up on the couch and frowned at guns, zombies and improbably-shaped women. I have sat around listening to arguments over which Skyrim mods create the most aesthetically pleasing experience without compromising the integrity of the game play, which, if I'm honest, I still don't really know what that means. Not once in all this time have I felt that it was an accessible and positive medium for me. Although intellectually I felt included in the feminist struggles of the gaming complex, I had no desire to actually engage with video games on a personal level as I did not believe they could provide any meaningful experience.
Games are not for me. Games are a boy's club where violence is an acceptable form of entertainment, where sexism is rife, where we exchange our ability to engage with the 'real world' for sore eyes and unrealistic expectations of women, conflict resolution, job satisfaction, etc. It is presented as a medium I didn't have any use for because Big Feminism hasn't oppressed MY violent urges, so why would I need an outlet? Even if I were to have violent urges, that isn't very ladylike and perhaps that stuff should be left to the big boys, cupcake. The point I'm trying to make is that not only am I not video games' target demographic, I am also the anti-consumer: a sensitive feminist who won't be able to handle the jocular nature of sexist slurs and keep up with the primal nature of competition.
This is how I felt until I stumbled across Gone Home. My partner is a brilliant student of media criticism and suggested that this game had passed many tests where most failed. I decided to give it a go, assuming that I would be bored and offended within minutes, as per usual. Instead I found myself being addressed in a respectful and honest way by the game. In the few hours it took me to complete it, I came to feel emotionally attached to the story and built a degree of empathy for the characters that could only come of truly understanding their experience.
Gone Home captured what it felt like to be a teenager. It captured the angst and frustration that came when battling conservative values and having your politics and identity being condescended to by those who were meant to love you. It was not filled with flashing lights, there was no back flipping or 'press x to murder housewife'. You simply moved through the story of a family's disconnect with each other. You were not encouraged to put aside your human empathy in order to gain X number of hit points, but rather take the game as it came and really engage with the unfolding narrative.
Perhaps in part due to my own projections, Gone Home also captured the guilt that many women feel when putting your desires first. The game made no efforts to judge your independence, but you could nevertheless feel the weight of your decisions. You could feel the sadness washing over you as you realised that your sister needed your support and you weren't there.
Gone Home was an honest and accessible portrayal of adolescent notions of alienation, love and political frustration through Sam, and the newly-adult pressures of family, responsibility and regret through Katie. The game approached these themes with respect and empathy, a feminist approach to women's everyday experiences which is rare in most mediums, and in the games industry rarest of all.
I am young, a feminist, and a women's health worker, which hits the trifecta of belittled social groups as far as white people go. To be the intended audience of a message in any popular medium which wasn't 'shave your armpits and get back to the kitchen' was satisfying, and revitalised my faith in activist media. Games like Gone Home have the potential to express aspects of women's experience in a way that no other medium could. If women's lived experiences were discussed in such an unashamed manner more often, perhaps I wouldn't spend so many days in a patriarchy-induced depression hiding under the covers. In my work with young women I've seen how rarely this sort of formative experience is understood (or even noticed), so the potential to discuss shared experiences through this medium gives me hope for it. Perhaps video games will prove to be of some use to us after all!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Abbott's Green Army: Punitive Civil Service

The LNP has put forward legislation to create a "Green Army" of disadvantaged Australians to engage in assorted environmental clean-up projects, at a pay rate of half the minimum wage. You can read the SMH article about it here.

Australian Labor has stated they will support the Green Army when it comes before the Senate. Read about that here.

What disgusts me about this isn't the vilification of the disadvantaged, which has been an Australian pastime since before the Howard years, or the deliberate erosion of workplace standards & the minimum wage, which has also been an essential element of the Australian political landscape for a while - it's the disservice it does to the very concept of civic participation.

An "environmental workforce" is a noble ideal, not because the environment is important (though it is) but because it represents the possibility of citizens being mobilised peacefully by the state to be empowered as stewards of our environment. Not "the" environment as an ecosphere or vague political abstraction, but our environment; our forests, our streets, our streams, our gutters, our parking lots. The maintenance of these areas by those of us who live in them - & the gratitude & respect that maintaining them on behalf of the polity should afford - ought to be a fulfilling, meaningful activity that our government would rightly be lauded for enabling.

Instead, that very possibility is destroyed by turning the act of taking care of our own environment into a punishment for what a capitalist system considers effluent - those unable to meaningfully take part in the systems of profit generation & consumption. It makes the maintenance & beautification of our world - not in the broad sense, but in the immediate, personal sense - a fucking dunce cap to be placed on the heads of social pariahs. What should be a noble, worthwhile activity is reduced to a brand of humiliation, a clear denoting of failure in the eyes of society.

Paying people doing these tasks a deliberately sub-minimum wage says as clearly as a capitalist society can say anything, "these people, and the task they are performing, are lesser. What they are doing is a job for the shameful, & the situation they are in should be reviled or pitied, but either way avoided." It twists acts of maintenance, of caretaking, of respecting our towns, cities and suburbs into a punishment, an unwanted activity we hand off to the unwanted dregs, and they'll bloody well do it if they want to eat & pay rent. There's no possibility of the barest self-respect in that.

Our society is, and should be, ashamed of the excessive waste it necessarily creates as part of its operation - whether it be inanimate garbage, or the human unemployed. Now Abbott has discovered a means to lump the two together, with the intent of ignoring both. Whatever you think of this as a policy, as a pure means to an end, of far more critical importance is its ideological underpinnings: the conservation of our public spaces, and the offering of assistance to those failed by our economic system, should both & together be considered embarrassments to be shunned, not duties to be willingly & proudly performed by all Australians.

This transforms active participation in civic life by citizens in the interests of citizens into a punishment meted out by those who are supposedly due our respect as worthwhile members of society - those who engage in profit-making for their own ends. The fully-revealed subtext behind this legislation, free of all bombast, is this: working to maintain the beauty & purity of our shared spaces & collective assets is a shameful weakness, & the exploitation of each other to increase our individual wealth is a righteous success.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Elder Scrolls: The best experiences are passed on by the survivors

People who don't live with me in an enclosed space may not be aware that Skyrim is only the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Everyone remembers Oblivion, and I hope many of you at least remember Morrowind exists, but beyond that we're straying into Old School territory.

A brief history lesson, then: back before the world of Tamriel was inhabited by thousands of carefully-crafted NPCs  and exactly four voice actors, it was inhabited by tens of thousands of soundless cookie-cutter NPCs (Non-Player Characters - the video game version of extras) in a game called Arena. I first encountered Arena when I was a child, clutching a massive fifty Australian dollaridoos and searching desperately for something to fill the gaping void left by completing Ultima Underworld II. Arena looked a bit like Underworld 2, and cost exactly fifty bucks, so I bought it without any further consideration or research. Such is the serendipitous hubris of an 8-year-old consumer.

I'm not sure how close I was to puberty then, but the box art may also have had some impact on my decision.

The game had one feature which was as interesting as it was pointless: the various cities of Tamriel could be traveled to on-foot, but travel times were close to real-time. I tested it once, pointing my brave avatar at the nearest town and putting a brick on the mouse before going to bed. Sure enough, ten hours later I had overshot the town by some distance, but was still nowhere near the next. A truly open world, if by 'world' you mean 'recurring wilderness tileset with the odd generated inn or monster'.

This was to my small mind the beginning of the open-world genre, the significance of which was completely lost on me as I raced against my dad to be the first to assemble the Staff of Chaos and defeat Jagar Tharn, Imperial Battlemage slash antagonist. He'd kidnapped the Emperor (not Patrick Stewart, an earlier Emperor,) something about a ghost woman, and ultimately the same plot as every fantasy adventure ever. Those were simpler times, before gritty anti-heroes were necessary, before gaming's Brown Period, back when you could make the player move, look and fight in first person using only the mouse and not get laughed right out of game development forever.

Fallout 3: partly responsible for gaming's Brown Period.

I missed Daggerfall completely, and was significantly into my difficult teenage years when I got Morrowind. I thought I'd forgotten most of Arena until I got into it, swiftly recalling Dark Elves and those weird snake guys (Argonians) and the various other nuances which have become the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls setting. Now I could wander the world between towns and there was actual content the entire way! And what content! The first time I ventured into the forest and it started to rain, I swear I could smell the rain falling around me. I got lost and staggered into another town what felt like four hours later (because it was four hours later) with one of my legs held on with a bit of twine and only a broken spoon left of my gear. The experience left me exhausted yet enervated, a rare achievement among even the best games.

The formative, powerful excitement I felt exploring these worlds was matched only by my mightily heaved yawn of disinterest upon playing Oblivion. The world felt like an empty shell stretched over the incoherent chaos of dungeons and NPCs generated on-the-fly. Like most, after I'd shut down my eighty-sixth Oblivion gate I put the game on the shelf and only took it down occasionally to frown at it in disappointment, or loan it to someone I didn't like. Whether this was a fair assessment of the game or not is beside the point - for me, the game failed to live up to Morrowind's high standard. Meanwhile, the world of Tamriel was still growing and developing as it had been since Arena, in ways I wouldn't fully appreciate until I journeyed to the frozen homeland of the Nords.

Shaping these to look vaguely like a vagina will only keep me entertained for so long, Bethesda.

It was while playing Skyrim that I became fascinated with the lore of The Elder Scrolls. I'd spend a fair chunk of time in Morrowind reading the various books scattered throughout the world, or discussing history with assorted NPCs. It was while reading A Brief History of the Empire during my travels in Skyrim that it gradually dawned on me that the history I was reading was also history from my own life. The tale of the brave adventurer assembling the Staff of Chaos and freeing the realm from Jagar Tharn? That wasn't just some story, that happened! It was me! I was there! Back when I was a little kid! It was like I'd opened up a copy of A History of the English Speaking Peoples only to be reminded I'd single-handedly won the Hundred Years War. I read on to learn also of my deeds fulfilling the Nerevarine Prophecy up north in Morrowind, and further about my vital role in ending the Oblivion Crisis (which sounded a lot more exciting than I remembered it). These tales fit seamlessly into the reams of history and folklore spun to shape the world of Tamriel, giving me a particular sense of connection to the setting the like of which I haven't experienced before or since.

Anything about me in there? No? Well, maybe next time.

My father read Lord of the Rings to me when I was a kid, and though it was a powerful experience to see that world realised in Peter Jackson's films, it was static; it was the same story I'd had read to me, only in a different (less effective) medium. The world of Tamriel, unlike Middle Earth, has grown and changed along with me. The dim memories I have of my childhood are of-a-kind with the dim, passed-down tales of Jagar Tharn's treachery, recent enough to be remembered, but distant enough for details to be lost. As much as cinematic games like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption boast that their worlds “adapt and respond to the player's choices” while you play, The Elder Scrolls is a world built on deeds so long past they're barely remembered – except, of course, by those of us who were there.

While I'm sure this is far from a unique experience in the history of story-telling (I've heard people recount their experiences playing family sessions of Dungeons and Dragons throughout their childhood that sound similar), it is nevertheless an amazing feeling to see as an adult the realisation of a world that grew up alongside you. For all the collision physics and emergent events and grass realism and more than four voice actors, what will really stick with me about Skyrim will always be the time I opened a book of history and read a grand documentation of my own childhood experiences, seamlessly integrated into one of the most detailed settings to be found in a video game. The feeling is given a genuine-ness that can't be faked no matter how impressive a budget your production has, or how talented your developers are. It can only be created by the passage of time turning a child into an adult who has the privilege of experiencing first-hand a setting that has been developing almost as long as he has.

One nerd's gross pixelated mess is another nerd's gross pixelated childhood.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Papers, Please: Games as mental experiences

The Best Games are the ones that give you some approximation of an experience. There's endless talk of emotion in games, with 'realistic' emotional feedback replacing photorealism and even physics as the current pie in the sky of game development. Since LA Noir, motion capture voice acting has become increasingly expected from big titles that are even moderately reliant on dialogue exchanges.

I'm not going to loftily shit on this trend here, but what I will say is it misses what games should be striving for if they seriously want to put a flag down in the entertainment industry or art world. Films are great at showing people's faces moving while they have emotional interpersonal exchanges. Some films consist entirely of just that. As a result, despite being moderately interesting, LA Noir felt like a movie that'd keep stopping unless I pressed buttons to make it go again. This is a fairly shallow criticism of the game which has been made elsewhere, but rather than complaining it's a shit game I'd like to suggest it's a helpful indication that the True Strength of gaming may lie elsewhere; by generating experiences.

What I mean by 'experience' in a video game context is something that changes your mind state to more closely resemble the mind state of someone (or something) else, or an altered version of yourself. This is distinct from, for example, The Last Of Us' attempts to make the player care for Ellie. When Ellie was in danger I felt a real, palpable fear for her safety. That was a great achievement, but 'fear' is a fairly broad mind-state I'm already familiar with - scaring an audience is generally a pretty safe option. Though we may have moved on from 'things jumping at you' to 'things jumping at someone else you have some level of concern for', feeling scared for the safety of a loved one is an emotion most will easily be drawn into. Though this is somewhat new ground for video games, ultimately I was still 'an afraid 20-something straight white guy playing a video game'. That's the experience I was having - fear while using a PS3. I can file that away with 'excitement while using a PS3', 'boredom while using a PS3', and the most-common, 'despairing for the future of my species while using a PS3'.

Papers, Please crafts a very different sort of experience. By engaging with the game's simple mechanics to perform simple tasks, my very way of thinking began to change. I stopped seeing people as people, and instead saw them as a corrupt border official sees them - potential risks, potential rewards, potential punishments. They became a series of traits and facts that had to be sorted. I noticed after a few hours of play that I rarely even saw them as discrete entities any more; they were nothing more than height, weight, and hair colour. Their names didn't even register with me, I was merely comparing the letters on one document to the letters on another. If they matched, I did one thing; if they didn't, I did another. The simple graphics enhanced, rather than hampered, this experience. Refugees would tell me heart-rending tales which I would completely ignore because I was re-arranging my desk to be more efficient. I would pay no attention to things they told me unless they were essential to their processing, at which point I would refer to a transcript because that was faster than listening to them.

I didn't start out that way, of course. As with most games I started out with the best of intentions, but was open to being corrupted. This isn't my first rodeo, after all; I'm familiar with morality in games. Am I going to be a good border official, or an evil border official? But this isn't the kind of non-choice (looking at you here, every binary-morality RPG ever) Papers, Please presents to its players. You are a border official with a live family, or a dead family. "Fuck my family!" I decided on one playthrough, "I'm an evil border official." I opted to let my dead-weight family perish, and as a result, I was fired from my job because the State has no use for a worker who can't look after his family. Well, shit. Next time I was a Good Border Official, who was swiftly gaoled for trying to turn in a group of revolutionary partisans. The game continually undermines any assumptions you might try to form about good and evil. There are naughty and nice decisions to be made - the game bombards you with them - but they're rarely connected to consequences in a predictable way. This creates apprehension not of doing good or doing bad, but instead of violating The Rules. Sure, the status quo may slowly be starving your family to death, but to strike out and accept bribes could bring even swifter, more horrible consequences. Lofty transcendent ideals are painfully eroded in favour of 'what will keep me alive to come to work again tomorrow?'

These design choices leave you with a sensation of specifically bureaucratic powerlessness, the experience of being reified to a bunch of rules combining with pieces of paper. The drudgery of your work carries an ever-growing feeling of desperation as you struggle, and the desperation of others is increasingly swept aside by your own concerns. While I started out sympathetic to the frustrations of these sorry people as they strove to deal with a bureaucratic nightmare, after a couple of in-game weeks those who cracked under the strain and simply refused to leave the border house were an unforgivable cause of lost wages. I couldn't sic the guards on them fast enough, and as they were dragged off to whatever horrible gulag I condemned them to, all I could think of was getting the next 5 credits into the hut so I could feed my family.

This is what I mean by 'creating an experience'. I was, emotionally, fairly flat while playing Papers - at least compared to the edge-of-my-seat nervous wreck I am after a few hours of Last Of Us, or the strung-out ball of tired confusion I was after Spec Ops: The Line. Papers doesn't trade in emotions, it renders them meaningless. It makes you care about paper more than people, about a few minutes saved time over a life extinguished by firing squad. Desperate people plead for a little leeway, just look the other way this once, and you dismiss them utterly and in the most callous fashion. They accuse you of being a power-mad thug of the State, but you feel completely powerless. You actually start to resent them for being unable to understand things from your perspective - the structure of the work itself forces you to be alienated from your fellow man. Even if you could explain to them that if you don't make 40 credits today your niece will disappear forever into the state orphanage system, would that somehow outweigh the needs of their own family? It's hopeless, and that feeling of hopelessness is more profound than 1000 jump-scares, and is created without a second of motion capture.

This is where games set themselves apart from existing media. A film or book can make you empathise with a tired border official, a show like Breaking Bad can make you identify with the worst villains, but only a game can force you to think like one of these characters. You don't struggle to put yourself in their position, you struggle to get yourself out of it, as most people in such a position probably would. This is where the flash and pizzazz of Generic War Simulators fails to be interesting time and again - they're just a bad action movie where you have to press buttons to make the protagonist win. It doesn't tell you anything about war, it doesn't put you in the boots of a soldier, it doesn't give you anything of the experience of combat or even just general danger. Not every game has to attempt to engage their audience this way, but the ones that don't limit themselves to being imitations of other media's strengths.

Papers, Please very smoothly and cleverly offers something games excel at: experience. As someone with more than my fair share of awful bureaucratic encounters, it was enriching to experience first-hand the tense drudgery and combination of boredom & attention to detail required for this kind of work. It was also a welcome reminder of what games are capable of when crafted by clever people with vision, rather than by marketing departments with profit projections and too many lines of coke. Papers, Please knows what games are good at and seeks to utilise those strengths to create something that is unique: simulated first-hand experience. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say I'll never view the assholes who process my welfare applications in the same way ever again.