Know your motivation

I’ve never written a FREELANCER ADVICE POST, mainly because I’m an absolutely terrible freelancer. At least 40% of my freelancing time is spent trying to figure out if I can get out of my assignment without permanently damaging my professional reputation.

But the other day, friend Andy, music editor at Pittsburgh City Paper passed along the guide he sends to his freelancers (of which I have been, once). It’s really useful — an introduction to the CP music section’s scope and the goals Andy has set for it. Its publication-specific focus makes it super-useful for both Andy and his writers, because it makes sure everyone has the same expectations. And that specificity helps it avoid the kind of traps general “how to freelance” articles can fall into: namely the thing where pretty much every outlet is a special case and general advice boils down to, “Well, hustle.”

BUT there are general bits of advice in the guide that, I think, avoid that trap. With Andy’s permission, I’m reposting the first section, slightly modified for games:

Know your motivation.

Think about why you want to write about music. Some legit, positive reasons:

  • You want to learn more about [games]
  • You want to share your knowledge with others
  • You want to analyze the cultural trappings of given [games] scenes/genres
  • You know you have a gift for writing and want to apply your talents
  • You want to help deserving artists tell their stories

Some not-so-great reasons:

  • You want to schmooze with [game devs]
  • You want to promote your friends’ [games]
  • You want free [games/conference tickets]
  • You want to meet members of the opposite sex
  • You want a job that pays well

I think the fifth bullet point in the first list is my favorite.

Oh, there’s also some punctuation advice:

Just FYI: When you put two spaces after a period, I delete one of them. Every time.

I’m not saying you can’t do it — I know some of you can’t break this habit, and it’s not a big deal all in all — but I just thought you might want to know that.

Paratext B-Side: Endless Violence Transcription

After E3 I recorded a monologue that editor Stu Horvath made a slideshow for. I was instructed to write what went through my head while I was there. Here’s the transcript:

E3 is probably (hopefully) the closest I will ever get to war journalism. The constant bombardment of the press conferences and the expo floor, four days of death and destruction. Of course, it’s just images. I wonder what Sontag would say it does (or doesn’t) do to my empathy, to be assaulted with these images that appropriate the aesthetic of violence without any actual physical-world victims.

When Connor kills and skins a deer in Assassin’s Creed 3, no deer is harmed. Even though this is LA, near Hollywood, when horses stumble on screen it’s not because an unseen rope breaks an actual horse’s leg.

No analog apocalypse survivors were harmed in the creation of the digital image of Joel from The Last of Us shotgunning someone in the face point blank.

Why so much violence? Is it because unlike conversation, interpersonal relationships, most of us only experience that degree of hyperviolence on a screen? An uncanny valley of emotional resonance, where a slightly-off bit of conversation is more noticeable than an impossible splatter pattern of viscera? Or is it that to do violence, parts of ourselves that are more difficult to simulate shut off? Are we programmed to be distant from violence in the same way we are distant from our avatar? Perpetrating violence can be as traumatic as being its victim. And isn’t a way of coping with trauma to disassociate, to become a spectator, to step outside yourself?

Is that why so many of the execution moments we saw this year take away our control? To protect us? Do quick time events distance us from the horrific violent imagery of these moments, making us a spectator? Or is it the equivalent of slow motion, of the close-up: by isolating action triggers into a few key button presses actually makes us more complicit in the hyperreal violence. Fewer button presses lends each one more weight and makes it less likely we’ll mess up and ruin the image.

And aren’t there victims? The same victims of any worldwide technological industry. Consoles need rare metals. The working conditions of the factories where the equipment of our jobs is manufactured may or may not be terrible. The ever-more elaborate visuals of big-budget games require more working hours, keeping people away from their non-occupational lives, their friends and their families. The sexism and the subtle messages about who the target audience is for these games, the normativiziation of certain marketing techniques and aesthetics that are alienating and self-reinforcing.

I’ve seen some vile things this week, but I’ve also seen some great things. How to reconcile the two? How to not to erase the negative but not let it overwhelm. How to not erase the positive but not let it overwhelm. How to not simplify, not destroy the complexity?

Know the enemy.

Understand the enemy.

Find the enemy inside yourself so you can be sure you’re not just repeating, reinforcing, its mistakes.

Look into it, and when it looks into you, meet its gaze.

Defy it. Deflect it.

Resist its domination and steal its fire.

Understand the paradigm in order to shift it.

Death of the Avatar

Death — my death, our death, the avatar’s death — and resurrection, the move from apparent absolute control through an absolute loss of control, only to regain control, to begin again, to begin our negotiation with the text again, to attempt to overcome our rejection from the text, by the text, is a core pleasure of a certain kind of videogame.

Atkins, Barry. Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in Videogame, Player, Text, Atkins and Krzywinska, Manchester University Press, 2007. 249.

Upon seeing the Library of Congress’s digital scans of W. Eugene Smith’s “A city experienced: Pittsburgh PA” ..

…to those not taking the past in proof against the future as a time for failure

Scans of “the whole of the photographic notebooks which total as the singular viewpoint of W. Eugene Smith in his Pittsburgh-Project” is online at the Library of Congress.

I first became aware of Smith’s work in 2001, when the Carnegie Museum of Art exhibited photographs taken from this project. I was nineteen, I had my freshman year of college mostly behind me. I was impressionable.

And so for years, first above my desk then above my mantle, I hung a print of a Smith photograph of “a street named DREAM, which has as other elements, a rural mail box and a car (it could be a horrible picture, yet it is one of the most delightful in humor and in symbol, but avoiding cliche other than in comment upon cliche)” (Smith’s description, from his 1956 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship application, is maybe a little biased).

Smith was photographing Pittsburgh at a time when the city was congratulating itself on its “Renaissance” (which it would do again in the 1980s, and has been doing a third time for about ten years now), but his photos don’t necessarily show it. Instead, you see Smith’s idea of a city as its people and its spaces and its people in its spaces. It’s had more influence on me and my work than anything else (though Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” has occasionally given it a run for its money).

It taught me to see the city.

The more things change.

Perhaps we have learned that all matters cannot be solved at the point of a (laser) gun. Maybe we are subliminally trying to rescue our hostages in Iran, and this time do it right. Could it be that we are hopeful about the future, convinced that matters are in fact resolvable? That sacrifice is desirable for long-term gains?

As Steve Martin would say: “Nah!”

The trend is probably just a change of pace, a passing fad, the lull before the storm of more alien invader games. We hope not.

Somehow we can not help but feel that even a quest with greed as its motivating factor is better than a blasting game, the urge to acquire and save stronger than the urge to destroy. (page 70)

Sodaro, Robert J. “From Altruism to Avarice: Questing Games”. Videogaming and Computergaming Illustrated, Ion International, Inc. October 1983.

Thanks to Nick Lalone for the link to that PDF. The issue of the magazine includes pieces about games as art, feminist readings of games etc, and a suggestions that maybe the chef in burger time isn’t a woman because, basically, women have curves and are more complex to animate than their “more linear counterparts” (27). Two or three paragraphs before the designer of Robotron talks about how they are thinking about adding a button to “picture the player as a boy or a girl, depending on what they choose”. (27)

I’m going to lie to you.

The first-person viewpoint is so often shorthand for “You are here. Your body is here. Your body can interact with things physically”.

This is the lie.

Because it’s a lie, guns are so prevalent. They project your will, your violence, into the visual space. The distant violence enabled by guns is a better fit for the first person view point than up-close melee because the former is primarily visual. And more people have been in a fist-fight than a gun fight, so they can tell when something feels off.

Sometimes, if the experience being “(re)created” is one players know only cinematically, the illusion of the lens will be employed to help sell the lie. Light flares, water droplets. Now it is not so much “You are here” as “Your reality is light bent through a lens.” Or, maybe, “this isn’t reality and we know it, so we’re going to signal that visually.” Water splashes on the lens in a documentary, tells you the lens is there. Acknowledge the camera’s presence and lend realism to the image it captures.

The great anti-interpretative promise of the videogame: they react the same way to any player’s input, so long as that input is the same. They don’t care who you are, where you’re from, just what you do at that minute. They’re too busy interpreting your action, providing feedback, to be subject to interpretation. They’re more real than film or music or books because they’re objective, they don’t care about you and they don’t care about their author.

This is the lie.

They train us to look for clues, to suss out what’s gone on “out there”, “in there”. They make every player a detective and every game a serial killer, leaving behind clues to be interpreted not because it wants to be caught, but because it thinks it’s smarter than you.

You cannot feel. No touch, taste, or smell, and so synaesthesia. Everything comes through sight and through sound. When you get shot in the back, you don’t feel pain, you see a red-curved line bending in the direction of the bullet. It is more informational than real pain, which does not triangulate its source. Because sight and sound are so important, they must be reliable. What you see and what you hear are the substance out of which the game world is built so they must be true – anything else would be a betrayal.

This is the lie.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s Renaissance Rome’s buildings are as old as the “Roman ruins” that populate the city are as old as the near-future-tech of the Animus. But we pretend they are different ages because we know how old they are supposed to be based on how they look. The aesthetics cue us into how to construct the temporality of the diegetic elements; to force onto them a linear existence, to give them a past and a present and a cause and an effect. The idea that things spring out of nowhere, no background, is terrifying. Better to put everything in order.

This is the lie.

How much subversion can occur within a system designed by someone else? You can only do what the system allows; if what you do is not intentionally enabled by the designer but still enabled, what does it mean to do it?

What is the lie? Where is the truth? In the material? There’s no paint quality to examine, no physical properties to underscore. Coltan mining and plastics and manufacturing conditions or assets and music and ? In the program? If/then/else and try/catch and binary?

I just want to go to sleep.

Writing about Aeris – Video game history and historiography

There are, I think, resources that those of us who write about video games have yet to really dig into. Archives of websites, discussion boards, newsgroups can help reconstruct a social context in which games were made and received. Textbooks and journal articles about arcades and games from the late 1970s and 1980s. Connections to literature and history that go beyond the content of the texts and look at their reception.

This is the story of how I used some of these resources in my article about Aeris for Kill Screen Magazine. Maybe it will give you some ideas. And if you ever need any help researching or need to find resources or a specific article, let me know. That “freelance librarian” thing in my bio isn’t a joke.

——

I wrote the Aeris story in the Kill Screen magazine intimacy issue. The topic that was discouraged in the call for pitches. The topic that has become shorthand for so many things: crazy fan behavior, the power (or emptiness) of video game images, overrated bloat and underrated melodrama. It’s a game event that lost its context, used as needed to make any argument involving games and emotion.

I hope that by the end of the article, I gave it back some of that context. Or, really, several contexts. That moment is so enduring is because it really does represent many different things.

The piece evolved as it was written. I probably wrote close to 12000 words over the course of the two months or so we worked on it. The longest draft came in around 7500 words. The final, around 5000 – with maybe around a 3000 word overlap.

I had to get it right. To put Aeris in context, to back everything up with historical evidence and not just offhandedly crack jokes about it. The way I saw it, this could support one of two stories: either the people who played FF7 back in the day were crazy, or there was something more interesting going on. If they were crazy, I thought maybe I could at least show that they were REALLY crazy and not just unsophisticated rubes who were dazzled by bright colors into thinking they were sad about a dead mass of pixels. If there was something more interesting going on (hint: 5000 words suggests there was/is), I’d figure something out as I went along.

(I’m going to write quite a bit here in the first person, but throughout all of this I was soliciting feedback from friends and colleagues, not the least important of whom was Chris Dahlen, the Kill Screen editor whose feedback was absolutely integral to finding the connections in my jumble of observations that my gut said were all part of the bigger story.)

That story changed quite a bit from my original pitch, a survey of Aeris rumors. I was thinking of a folkloric study, where I’d gather a bunch of stories and look for patterns and see what kind of classification system they suggested. I wanted to get as close to the original sources as possible, which meant taking advantage of the Wayback Machine and abandoned websites hosted on Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod (the big three of late 90s free web hosting).

Lycos bought Angelfire and Tripod, and the sites are still online. Yahoo shut down Geocities in 2009. I thought I was screwed – but fortunately, right around the time I was ramping up my research, ArchiveTeam announced they were releasing a torrent of all of the Geocities content they had archived. This led me to online Geocities mirrors which proved to be an amazing resource.

There were plenty of rumor sites, some dedicated to debunking Aeris’s resurrection, some to proselytising it. Most of the rumors were a few paragraphs (though at least one, The Equinox, came with several doctored screenshots), structured like an urban legend (“I heard that a friend of a friend said…”). They were all crazy. The explanations were insane. The amount of time people would have had to put into the game to test everything out was mind-boggling.

I had hit the jackpot. I’d write about obsession, fiction, and grief.

So I started a second line of research, this time into academic studies of grief in relation to fictional characters. Convoluted logic and philosophy obsessing over whether or not an emotional response to a fictional character’s death was rational or not. Most of these articles were written by men about the death of fictional women – especially Anna Karenina.

Take that as you will.

Back on the Aeris front, I split my research in two: on one hand, I was trying to find a way to establish some kind of timeline for the different rumors, to see if placing them in chronological order showed any patterns. My other focus was the one rumor that was attributed to a source, a man who called himself “Lansing” and who had posted something somewhere on the Internet very shortly after the game’s Japan release.

Websites may tell you when they were last updated, but those dates were, at their most specific, for the page level. I needed something more precise. Something that was timestamped and (preferably) fixed once it was created. So I looked to Usenet, a service where people would have discussed the game and its making, leaving behind a log already chronologically ordered. I planned to rebuild the order of events from this public correspondence.

Despite wonkiness in the search algorithms, Google’s database of Usenet postings (acquired from DejaNews earlier this century) was incredibly useful. I did a bunch of searches, but relevance ranking was useless in this situation, and I ran into problems where after the first page or so, the results would just be a repeat of the same ten newsgroup posts over and over again.

So I manually combed through about eleven months’ of posts (January-November 1997) from alt.games.final-fantasy (Lansing’s post from this group about how he made up the elaborate Aeris resurrection story was archived on the Final Fantasy VII Citadel). But I needed to understand the group better before I wrote about them and this archtroll Lansing.

I started doing the kind of work that anthropologists call ethnography (well, technically it was “ethnohistory” because I was using the historic record rather than immersing myself in the culture being studied). I wanted to understand the culture of the newsgroup because I thought that would help me interpret what was going on. I looked for patterns of behavior, traditions and rituals on a very small scale.

One of the important things about doing ethnography is paying close attention to word choice – how people describe is just as important as what they describe. And, of course, what they don’t describe is often the most telling. Reading people’s explanations of how Aeris could be brought back, or how they argued that she should or shouldn’t be able to, revealed underlying assumptions about games, the industry, stories.

Of course, I made my own assumptions, focused on certain stories. I tried to represent the different points of view, the different reactions and explanations for her death.

I tried to look into other, more official reactions to the game as well. I was hoping to find articles from around the time of the game’s release detailing attempts to resurrect Aeris in order to establish a latest-possible-date for these stories to have started (if the newsgroup fell through). Jason Killingsworth provided me with a scan of an Edge article from 2003 or so that contained an interview with the game developers.

While I was trying to construct the media landscape and a newsgroup in 1997, I was also digging through writings on Little Nell and Sherlock Holmes, having jettisoned the fiction/emotion psychology/philosophy at Chris’s suggestion. Because when you’re writing about game characters, what is more relevant than Victorian serial fiction? But it IS relevant – stories of the reactions these characters’ deaths anticipate what happened with Aeris: Londoners wearing armbands in memory of the detecive, New Yorkers demanding to know from passengers on British ships whether or not Nell survived.

I tried to substantiate these claims: biographies and books of Dickens’s and Conan Doyle’s letters were helpful in confirming individual reactions to the deaths. Using databases available from the library (as well as resources like the US Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project. I was unable to find any primary accounts of those events. Veracity is irrelevant: these stories continue to exist because they tell us that fiction is emotionally powerful and can affect us. The reaction to these Holmes’s and Nell’s deaths (passive mourning, letter writing) slots into the model of the serial fiction audience-text-reader. Just like the reaction to Aeris (passive mourning, letter writing, Internet ranting, obtuse rituals and in-game experimentation) works within the player-game-developer model. Juxtaposing them showed just how similar the reactions are. It made this crazy reaction to a video game death not less crazy, but not unprecedented.

Jumping between historical documents and biographies of dead white dudes, Usenet discussions from the late 1990s, and archives and still-extant websites from the same era gave me the eerie feeling of being unstuck. There were the moments (especially my first time reading about The Equinox) where I began to question whether or not it actually was possible to resurrect Aeris. What if, after nearly fifteen years, I was the one to discover that it WAS true? How awesome an article would that have made?

And that’s when I realized that there really was something special about this story. It was about a lot of different things: a puzzle to solve, emotion to deal with, a topic to discuss. It was about different aspects of gaming, personal and social. It was sprawling and messy and mad. It was life. It was going to take all of my librarian training to research, all of my anthropology training to observe and analyze, and its scope was terrifying and on more than one occasion I was certain I couldn’t pull it off.

But I’m pretty sure we did.

I hope you enjoy it.