Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Misspent Youth Pays Off

No game this time. Or perhaps every game.

Tomorrow morning, I defend my dissertation and get my PhD.

It is a valid question what a childhood of video games leads to. Thus far the answer has been student loans and blogging. Tomorrow, that changes. Tomorrow, I earn a PhD studying video games and comic books.

Real life rarely follows the narrative logic of video games. Few things do. This is why I dismiss video games as a narrative medium - narrative becomes really restricted when you have to stop every few minutes and fight a bunch more bad guys. Graduate school, to its credit, does exactly that though. Whatever stories of maturation and growth have played out over the past five years, and there are many, they have been defined against a backdrop of an unending sea of papers, revisions, writing, research, and other tasks.

And like a video game, and quite unlike life, it comes down to one zero-sum encounter. And that's the defense. An hour plus of oral exam on your work. A committee of professors grilling you and holding your feet to the fire. And you have to survive. You have to beat back the questions, remain calm and persuasive, and show that you know your shit. Show that you're as solid at it as they are.

It's a final boss. On your last life. With no continues.

I do not pretend that academia or video games are useful preparations for anything. They are ends in themselves. Neither reflects much outside of their own reality.

But I am steeped in both. And this time, just this once, everything lines up, and I am in my element.

And oh yes, I am ready.

*selects Bubble Lead*

Let's do this.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TL;DNR (Baseball games)

Baseball, America’s supposed national pastime, represents a pastoral tradition in America that, if it ever existed, is long since dead, though at whose hands one cannot readily tell. A sport beloved by a particular rarified middle class impossibly distant from the very agrarian nature that the pleasant greenery represented by the baseball diamond ostensibly represents. Baseball, a game contextualized as the peaceful relaxed pleasantry of a nation that is not peaceful, relaxed, or frankly pleasant. As re-focused once again through the Nintendo.

Components of the experiment: One bottle of Graham Beck 2004 Shiraz. A total of 10 baseball NES games. A laptop with opened. A desire to journey into the very heart of the nature of America. This is Gonzo territory. I mean this not so much in the Muppet sense as the Hunter S. Thompson sense. Baseball video games must be the very essence of America in the 1980s. This is definitionally true - it cannot help but be true. They are the contact point between the bloating technocracy of Ronald Reagan and Japan (which are conceptually the same thing) and the pastoral tradition that they did not so much destroy as rape and leave for dead on the side of a dusty road marked "Beware the Southern Strategy." There is a reason that, in Bad Dudes, I must rescue the President from ninjas - it is not the non sequitur it appears. Both Pirates and Ninjas were part of the same technocratic hegemony.

There is something to the fact that the United States have the single most sedentary sport as a national pastime of anyone. South of us is the bracing fluidity of soccer. North is the bracing brutality of hockey. The only possible contender for a lazier sport than baseball is cricket (which is, I should note, not the national sport of England - that would be soccer. As with most places). Two things of note here. 1) Cricket is still more hardcore than baseball, because nobody fucking understands the rules, and matches last for days. Never mind baseball's "extra innings as long as it takes" mentality, culminating in a puny 8 hour 25-inning game. Cricket fucking begins at 18 hours. Take that, whores. 2) Cricket is the national sport of India and Pakistan. Fucking standing outside for 6 fucking hours a day there is harder core than anything that has ever happened at Wrigley Fucking Field.

Add to this irony that baseball identifies as a national pastime despite the fact that it's not. At all. It is not a sufficiently popular sport. It is not the most popular sport in the country. It is a national pastime only in the sense of myopic hubris - the same sort of hubris that results in us declaring a competition in which only one team from outside of the United States competes the "world series." And, of course, we studiously avoid actually playing the rest of the world in baseball, in no small part because Japan and Cuba would kick our fucking asses to the curb like we were England playing any sport they invented.

There is more of a case to be made that playing video games is our national pastime. But like England our invention of this activity has long since been surpassed. Japanese companies have been outdoing us at video games since, well, the NES. And even before that, in a strange feat of anticipatory mourning, the best-selling video game system was an American system named to sound Japanese. Video games have always been turning Japanese, I think. So?

So the usurping of our identity - the usurping of baseball games into the electronic sphere - is, what? The destruction of American identity? The final desecration of the pastoral, overwritten with the urban electronic. No. Not overwritten. Appropriated, in the manner of the urban park. The Presidential pitch - always a weak simulacrum of the reality.

An apt word, simulacrum. Or weak. The baseball games are marked by one crucial problem - they are all the exact same game, and they all suck. Batting is a matter of a cheap timing game. Fielding is a matter of running awkward slow people around a big field while the computer does disproportionately well. It's tedious repetition. Baseball is not made for video games, nor even for consumption. Consumption belongs to the technocrats of the city.

But of course, so does baseball. It is not the pastoral. Never has been. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Camden Yards. These are not rolling pastoral fields. They are titans of steel and brick hewn into cities. The pastoral tradition has always been exploited by the very urban tradition it ostensibly sits opposed to. This is the heart of American politics, as John Stewart so aptly observed when he noted that, curiously, it was the parts of America that were actually attacked by terrorists that were most opposed to the Bush administration's strategy to deal with said terrorists. Baseball is not of the pastoral tradition, but rather a vapid perform

ance of pastoralism, captured, in this sense, perfectly by the video game with its narcotic dullness

substituting for fun.

But there is perhaps a third way to navigate these waters. The way promised by Base Wars. What better way to grapple with the technocratic encroachment on the illusory realm of the pastoral than having giant robots shoot baseball cannons at each other. This is, in its own way, the epitome of video game logic. As T approaches infinity, all things will become giant robots. And be no more interesting for it.

Take me out to the ball game. I want to be in that forgotten, illusory pastoral land. I want to stare up at the sky, tracing the arc of a long fly ball, and as it disappears into the sun for a moment. And when it returns, the giant robot invaders will descend with it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dagger Poems in the Slimy Bellies (Barker Bob's Trick Shooting and Bard's Tale)

I taught Amiri Baraka the other day in class. As one would expect, my class was not overly fond of Baraka, viewing him, like good little middle class moderately liberal college students, as a sort of reverse racism. I would fault them for their shoddily timid interpretations, but it's not as though I did not go through the same phase. And it is not even that their interpretation was timid. Rather, it was that they presupposed that their interpretation must be wrong, that they were not the intended audience of the poems. They assumed the poems spoke to someone else.

Lev Manovich famously said that to treat a new media object as interactive is to mistake the mind of the other for your own. He likens the moment to one from Louis Althusser, in which Althusser demonstrates the concept of interpolation. Althusser's example is of a man walking down the street as a police officer shouts "Hey, You!" Because of a larger social circle, the police officer hails the man he seeks - the one shouted for sees the structure of his interlocutor's mind, and interpolates himself within it. Likewise, when we deem a video game interactive, it is because we have bought into the system of rules and controls that it offers us. It is only interactive inasmuch as we think as it commands.

Driving home, every object was a target. This is the nature of shooting games. All objects are targets. If it moves, kill it. If it does not move, kill it before it moves. If there is any ambiguity, shoot it to be sure. Hence modern shooting games focus more on not shooting - throwing non-targets that it penalizes you for shooting. Because the challenge offered by shooting everything is a non-challenge. Barker Bill's predates this move, though. To play it is to graft a level of homicidal mania into one's identity. Pick up the controller and become a madman, shooting wildly.

The appeal is not merely the reduction of the world into the comforting binaries of gameplay - shot or missed, dead or alive. It is also the grafting of new eyes onto mine. I have not played with a Zapper in some time, but I still have the peripheral. I can pick it up, its weight familiar in my hands after all these years, and I am at once programmed, indeed, reprogrammed. My arm stretches out and the world devolves to target.

This programming is the fun of video games. I have spoken of the closed machine loop. My body, subservient to the structure of lines of code. Robotic, yes, but not in the sense of mindless reaction. This is the peak of artificial intelligence - the Turing line between program and being. Am I Turing-capable while I play video games? After?

Bard's Tale is not a game I played before, though as with many games this fact is essentially beside the

point. A dungeon crawl that borders on the Roguelike, with the sadism to match. A brutal hacking to death of your party with little to nothing to be done about it. But its ethos is familiar. That which moves dies. Particularly if it randomly encounters you. Basically, if you didn't expect to see it and it moves threateningly, it's probably best to hit it with swords. Just because, you know?

Baraka calls for assassin poems. Bullet poems. My students did not understand. Did not even know that they were hit. Make no mistake. Buried into their brains, disfiguring them. They are now hideous thought lepers, unable to read, think, exist without exposure and interface with Baraka. It is not just video games that distort us. Not just video games that reduce the world to an inescapable sea of targets and threats. That's art for you.

I remember the movie Three Kings. Actually, I don't. Just one moment, describing that the damage of a bullet is not it tearing through flesh, but rather flesh's reaction to being torn through. Assassin art is similar. Reading it, playing it, experiencing it is not the moment of damage. The aftermath, wounded and rewritten, is where art thrives. To experience art is to feel the bullet wound. This is where my students fail. Unaware of their own wounds, they do not experience art. They do not know they are programmed. They do not know that they are not the player but merely a physical embodiment of the code. Of the system. They do not see the targets around them. They do not see how many things they are a target for.

To write is to take aim - to make everything take aim.