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Robot Horse Blues


September 25, 2013 by Chris Whitman

So the news came out that @horse_ebooks has been an art installation since 2011.

Personally, I was disappointed. But after reading some other reactions, I started to wonder about the source of that disappointment. After all, as has been pointed out, where’s the loss in realizing a spam marketing scam has actually been an art project the whole time? Isn’t that a good thing?

So I gave it some thought, and here’s my issue.

The (admittedly pretty unrealistic) promise of the web was to smash the dichotomy between so-called content creators and their consumers. Corporate media is over. From now on we entertain each other, we inform each other, we all both produce and consume for and from each other.

Where this failed, of course, was in the tendency for word-of-mouth—especially on such an open platform—to produce exponential differences in the dissemination of voices and ideas. Traditional corporate-style media, with its wealth, power and connections, could simply integrate the few voices with the lion’s share of the popularity and attention who were looking for ways to leverage their exposure into a living wage. Specific companies rose and fell but we have remained in the majority consumers of corporate-produced media.

Inside this, spam bots, and @horse_ebooks in particular, represent found objects, marketing efforts repurposed as art by Twitter users, to be enjoyed outside their intended context. They aren’t invented by Twitter users, but the social context that elevates them to an artistic position is the result of a user-centred social movement. If Duchamp is the author of the Fountain, then Twitter users are the authors of @horse_ebooks.

I think that’s one part of where my disappointment originates: something that was in a sense created by Twitter users as an alternative to the status quo turned out to be a perfect example of that status quo. It’s a reminder that there is no escape from the horizon of the creator/consumer relationship, that we are told what to retweet, what to like, what to share to our friends, and we obediently do it. There’s no room for playful subversion, for any real irony, just cynicism.

Marketing in the internet age short-circuits the social developments that took place between the decline of feudal bonds and the era of market capitalism. Capitalism dictated that production of commodities and the ownership of the means of that production were necessary to generate wealth, not simply the ownership of commodities themselves. You couldn’t just hold wealth, you had to generate it in motion, as it were. The commodification of attention circumvents that development.

American companies don’t produce goods; they just arrange for goods to be produced by other companies in Asia. Their main purpose is to purchase and own attention resources.

Marketing pretends to be a kind of presentation. “Here is our product. Here is what it does. We hope you like it.” But it has really become this incredibly costly and wasteful method to turn capitalism back into feudalism—to engineer something that looks (even legally) like capitalism but is really feudal in character and execution—with the hierarchy based on attention rather than land. And in this environment, attention—like land in the feudal era—is so valuable that no one can be permitted to hold or freely use their own.

Why couldn’t @horse_ebooks be left alone as a weird internet phenomenon? Because while it might not be run by a major corporation, it maintains the same ideology: that anything that attracts attention is too valuable to be left to its followers. It has to be turned into a tool for promotion, be that corporate promotion or the self-promotion of an artist.

Jacob Bakkila could have made his own Twitter account to post gibberish to. But the point was to appropriate something people were already paying attention to. What we thought was marketing rediscovered as art has turned out to be art rediscovered as marketing. The total victory of corporate media and social ownership as a way of looking at the world is that we can’t just like anything without it becoming part of a brand or a product, or without somebody taking it over to stick their name all over it. What’s disappointing is the confirmation that this is just the world we live in.

Defacing the Ancient Video Game


July 20, 2013 by Chris Whitman

So I’m back to reading a lot of Bakhtin. It’s no secret that Bakhtin is my favourite games writer who had no idea, at the time, that he was writing about games.

I could easily write a dozen posts about what heteroglossia means to me for game design and especially narrative design, but I had a thought regarding a particular point on carnivalization in the essay Epic and Novel, which applies to a certain class of game into which fit Dark Souls, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and which also dovetails nicely into some conceptual material from Cyclonopedia.

The literary and artistic consciousness of the Romans could not imagine a serious form without its comic equivalent. The serious, straightforward form was perceived as only a fragment, only half of a whole; the fullness of the whole was achieved only upon adding the comic contre-partie of this form. Everything serious had to have, and indeed did have, its comic double.

This is an idea echoed in Borges’ Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, that a work is enriched or completed not by furthering the original text but only through its ironic double.

In a sense this is a reflection of the ( )hole complex of Cyclonopedia. What appears as a contiguous, totalizing surface is in reality soft and porous, and covers a deep network of capillaries and tunnels, a dynamism which constitutes an alien political body lying beneath the original work.

These games all present a totalizing linear progression, but they all include elements (the Master Key in Dark Souls, the wall jump in Super Metroid, the various hidden powerful items in SotN) which reveal the game itself to be porous, and riddled with hidden politics.

What makes these games enduring classics is I think how they are consumed, in quite nearly a literally sense. First they are encountered as intimidating wholes, especially Dark Souls with its incredible difficulty and unfairness, and secondly they are rediscovered as something filled with convolutions and contradictions.

This is different from the narrative of consumer choice that games are governed by, which is a kind of capitalistic choice—i.e., you can choose your favourite boss/computer/soda, but all bosses/computers/sodas are the same. Here you are presented with one choice, one option, but this option can be illegitimately transgressed revealing a web of options which are wild, broken, untested and unfair.

The substance of this is articulated in Cyclonopedia with its analysis of H.P. Lovecraft. It is precisely the fascizing elements in these games (the linear ordering, the demand to retrace steps, the extreme, punishing difficulty), rather than the facile appearance of choice, which echo the extreme fascistic xenophobia of Lovecraft and make these good meat for alien consumption. In fact, it’s at the point when the linear order of Dark Souls splits, when you are faced with a choice of areas that can be completed in any order, when the game becomes markedly less subject to exploits, and hence cannot be experienced as well in this dual way.

Obtaining the ice beam early using wall jump, farming the Crissaegrim, beating Queelag as the first boss—these are not choices, they are experienced on the surface as setbacks or mistakes or errors in design that reveal a deeper, poromechanical whole. They allow the game to be discovered and rediscovered in this dual nature, first approached as a subject and then defaced as an object.

A button to skip the hard parts doesn’t do this. This can’t be given. It has to be seized by the player as a Promethean endeavour. And it can’t grant a bonus in exchange for another penalty, in classic “interesting choice” style, as a negotiation to placate you; it has to obliterate and cannibalize/carnivalize the entire work. These are literally game-ruining.

Because you can’t call this good design. It’s the antithesis of design—just a tiny opening through which the entire unified design is riddled with failures and inconsistencies. This travesty, this parodic turn creates the full richness of the experience where it can be properly dealt with and discarded. It is blasphemed and exorcised.

Dark Souls, Metroid and SotN have been destroyed. The classics—Chess has been destroyed utterly. If a game can’t be destroyed, ruined, defaced then it’s only a fragment, only half done.



May 4, 2013 by Chris Whitman

I have some moderate experience working on long term art and work projects, both in completing and in failing to complete them. The following is a series of things I try to avoid doing, because I’ve noticed they really impact my work. YMMV, of course.


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Cities & The Dead


April 27, 2013 by Chris Whitman

I think it’s important to point out that capitalism was a rational system responding to rational need. For all of human history we had faced the problem of scarcity, and the greatest social threat had been that of landowners—emperors, kings, wealthy merchants—exploiting limited labour to their own ends. To break this, capitalism required that in order to maintain wealth you had to produce goods to meet social needs rather than for your own accumulation.

Capitalism broke the last of the feudal bonds, it prompted large scale industrialization, it brought very real, very powerful labour saving devices into the price range where the majority of citizens, at least in industrialized nations, could afford them.

But somewhere along the line, something went wrong.

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February 7, 2013 by Chris Whitman

I read this Rebecca Solnit article on app money in SF and the gold rush on the bus this morning.

(During my lunch, I read this Kirk Hamilton response, which is also good.)

I find it a little surprising that while the Solnit piece talked a fair bit about the events surrounding the gold rush, it didn’t really talk too much about the gold rush itself, and missed what I think is the obvious point of comparison.

What’s the meaning of gold?

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The Undeath of the Author


January 27, 2013 by Chris Whitman

What’s The Lord of the Rings about?

As a kid, I used to read The Lord of the Rings just about every summer (lonely, nerdy kids, you know?). I’ve probably read it cover to cover four or five times. Like many other friendless, awkward children, I was enchanted by its tales of high adventure, of epic conflicts between good and evil that felt more real and more significant than my actual life.

But I grew up.

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What is Indie?


November 30, 2012 by Chris Whitman

Excuse me, Industry here. We hear you’re doing this “indie” thing now, and honestly it’s got us a little nervous. What’s it all about, anyway?

Easy, basically indie means you’re independent of major publishers.

Sure, OK, but what does that mean? Independent how?

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Are all games domination fantasies?


November 29, 2012 by Chris Whitman

So mcc says that Liz Ryerson says that all games are domination fantasies. OH NO SHE DIDN’T.

Anyway, the challenge was to write out all the games you’ve made and their plots/themes/what you do. I am going to do this while drinking vanilla tea and eating an entire bag of dried mangoes. Here goes!

Porta Lucis—You are obsessed with a nondescript door in the city. One day you discover it is unlocked. Passing through, you enter an endless, nightmarish basement where you must use your wits and pocket knife to survive against much more powerful monsters. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative you are an inmate in a shadowy, dreamlike asylum. Can you escape? What is real? Domination fantasy? It’s hard to tell what this might be a fantasy of.

Famous Authors—Three games surrounding two brilliant, troubled writers and one exceptionally exhausted game developer. Biographical/Semi-autobiographical. You have to press X repeatedly. Domination fantasy? Probably not. Unfortunately no one ever really got the takeaway for this, which is that producing almost any piece of work, whether mundane or genius, basically boils down to a lot of pressing X repeatedly.

Merlin, Build Me a Castle—You play as either King Arthur or his brother King Brothur. Destroy your brother’s flying castle! The person with the tallest castle after fifteen seconds is declared the winner. Domination fantasy? Absolutely and without a doubt.

Run—A small, isolated farming village is struck by a three-year plague of darkness. A stranger, who does not appear in the game (and some speculate to be the player), tries to save the villagers by bringing light from the future through a series of meditations. Speculation on tools and the body, digital representation and the uncanny nature of city life. Domination fantasy? Possibly, in the sense that it’s definitely about using tools to dominate depersonalized, “natural” forces. On the other hand, it’s mostly about how the struggle to overcome something at all costs changes you irrevocably into something else, something defined and delimited by that struggle.

The Story of the Cat—Follow the humble house cat through its evolution from a single-celled cat, to an ancient cat-fish, to a modern day cat, struggling for survival against its natural enemies (vacuum cleaners). A meditation on the possible future of cats. Domination Fantasy? Yes, but that’s cats for you.

??? (Unreleased, very heavily WIP)—Domination Fantasy? Yes. The inverse of Run, in a sense. How an obsession with preserving the past ultimately changes the past, how all justifications, when gripped tightly enough, grow brittle and meaningless, how the will to dominate ultimately destroys the thing being dominated.

Here are some games I’ve worked on for other people.

Glitch— (R.I.P.) Explore the minds of seven giants in this off-beat, non-violent MMO built in the spirit of cooperation. Domination Fantasy? Pretty much intentionally the opposite.

Dungeons of Dredmor—The evil Lord Dredmor has returned from his n years slumber or whatever. Descend into the Dungeons of Dredmor, eat cheese, read funny item descriptions and try not to die. Domination Fantasy? Ostensibly yes, but really more like a masochistic fantasy. The game is almost impossibly hard. You are congratulated for dying.

Why I don’t want to be seen with you if you’re going to use the word “hipster”


November 21, 2012 by Chris Whitman

There are, in fact, three reasons.

The term “hipster” hit its contemporary revival probably around 2005, in a general trend of city gentrification, typified by the rezoning of Williamsburg from mostly industrial to mostly residential, when previously poor areas were flooded with young, hip kids, generally pretty wealthy, who were into music and fashion and such.

A lot of this was, as the story goes, because like many rich, young people, they fetishized the trappings of poverty and general bohemianism, so of course they all became quote-starving-unquote artists and played the keyboards in bands while collecting cheques from their parents to support that lifestyle.

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Jon Leiter, Intern


November 1, 2012 by Chris Whitman

The year is 2142 and many things have changed. We live under a society that was once called late capitalism, then post-late capitalism, followed by post-post-late capitalism by a few hangers-on, and which is now called nothing at all. The social sciences, normally in charge of such determinations, are a shrinking field, and our small number of remaining academics have become little more than vestigial appendages of their primary shareholders.

My route to work takes me past the site of the former university, so I still see them sometimes, if the weather’s been cool enough, oscillating gently in the early-morning breeze, their dew-dappled, sallow flesh spilling listlessly over threadbare sport coats, out of old loafers with peeling soles. Occasionally one of them will produce a paper—a small, accidental packet of bile-stained pages, covered in a tight, indecipherable scrawl—but mostly they just sort of wobble and mumble.

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