The Aspirations of Our Art, and the Realism of our Clay

A week ago I had the pleasure of attending the Games 4 Change Festival in New York, the quintessential home of American finance. The conference is put together by the Games 4 Change curators and organizers, with some collaboration with a bunch of folks also affiliated with NYU in various ways and forms. It was held at the Parsons School of Design at The New School. I’ve been to the festival off and on over the years, this was the 15th year and I wanted to be there to see friends and colleagues, as well as to get a pulse on what was happening in the space. As a conflict of interest, I’ll note that they asked me to help judge the ‘most innovative’ category for the festival awards, and I was given a conference pass for this work.

While I was there, one of the sessions I attended was a ‘Well Played’ talk on Gonzalo Frasca’s game entitled ‘September 12th’, given by Matt Weise. I’ve only seen Matt speak on a couple of occasions, but when you look through his bio you are probably familiar with his work. He is on the little mental list of people I have that when they say something I know to deeply consider it, because he’s smart, knowledgeable, passionate, incredibly skilled at formulating his arguments, and speaks from a broad base of experiences as a designer, artist, and academic. His talk was, by far, the most interesting thing I saw at the conference — it was incredible. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you aren’t familiar with September 12th, it is a game that is a kind of ‘interactive political cartoon’ where the player’s goal is to bomb terrorists as they walk around a small village. As bombs are incredibly imprecise tools of destruction, they cause casualties and ‘collateral damage’ as we’ve seen in the real world, and in the aftermath of these killings caused by the player, mourners gather at these sites and are radicalized to become terrorists. The more people you bomb the more terrorists are created, and eventually the player is left with a screen full of the very enemy s/he was asked to eliminate. It is a simple, effective, and devastatingly cutting critique of the War on Terror as propagated by America and it’s allies, and it takes less than a few minutes to fully understand it and its message.

Matt’s presentation didn’t focus mostly on the game, however, it focused instead on the premise often inherent in the types of games explored at Games 4 Change, and a sustained focus on ‘systems thinking’ in these works as they attempt to inspire reflection, societal change, and achieve educational outcomes. His narrative challenged those of us in the audience to consider carefully the cost of ‘over-promising’ the effectiveness of this kind of work, that we “cannot expect games or any artform to save the world”. He grounded this in noting that often when we discuss work of this type we are exploring using games as a tool to teach systems because we believe that mastering these systems is the issue — that if players better understood things as systems, the relationship of all the elements, the complexity of the various intertwined bits, then they would be inspired to social action or a change in belief because of this newfound understanding: but this may not always be the case. Some players may understand the system fully but reject the underlying premise anyway. Belief is, in the end, a matter of opinion: every artistic choice is an opportunity to reject the model, facts don’t matter. In the particular case of September 12th, Matt described an anecdotal critique of the game by a player on the far right of the political spectrum, who essentially just pointed out how bombs could be more accurate, how people didn’t radicalize that quickly, etc., etc., using any and every detail to continue to hold tightly to existing beliefs. Changing beliefs has societal, social, and structural cost, and often humans will cling to a given belief because existing notions are perceived to have less inherent personal toll.

A Cynical Note on Systems and Goals

I was struck by two things during this presentation. First, Matt is obviously correct in that we as a community do have to be careful about over-promising. It can, as he noted, result in repercussions when we don’t achieve unrealistic milestones. September 12th will not stop the war on terror, Frank Lantz’s game Paperclip will not result in a slower and more thoughtful adoption of AI-driven production techniques, the Fiscal Ship by Digital Mill will not balance the U.S. budget, and games in general will not ‘solve’ education once-and-for-all, the short-term need for STEM graduates, world hunger, etc. And when we promise those kinds of deliverables and don’t follow through, it hurts the field. Second, I was of course struck by both the notion of games as tools for systems-oriented education, and their demonstrated failure in certain respects given that awareness of the system is not the only element needed for effective reflection and insight.

These two elements have been bouncing around in my head ever since his presentation, coupled with my experiences as an administrator, educator, academic, and artist. And they’ve resulted in two very disjoint lines of thinking, because I kind of disagree with parts of what Matt said in that while I think we need to be careful about overpromising, but also that we need to describe what we are doing in strongly aspirational terms. And sometimes those terms can seem like trying to deliver on goals larger than any individual game or project has a right to. If I take a cynical look at that (and I’m me, so I have) I’d point to the fact that the systems we are intertwined with as academics and citizens in fact demand that we overpromise, if only to have the resources and means to have a voice.

Over the past several years, the escalation of what it takes to justify a standard project from the National Science Foundation has grown to absurd proportion. Most faculty will tell you (completely off the record) that (a) you can’t do the grant for the money, (b) the claims about broader impact are, for the most part, exaggerated in every successful proposal, (c) the dissemination criteria necessitate an almost utopian vision in order to be effective, and (d) the days of doing good science to learn or replicate a small but important thing are dying on the vine. This has led to a kind of ‘chiffonade’ approach to modern research, attempting to slice and dice discovery into as many discernable points of output as possible, with the largest citation counts, and the smallest possible individual slice, such that additional funds can be accrued at every opportunity to continue. The support for basic and freely applied research for the betterment of the species, the nation, and to further our understanding both of humans and the universe in which we live is no longer the primary incentive. Increasingly, universities are quietly redefining ‘research support’ to mean ‘raising operating funds’ as traditional ideas of collective government support and engaged public trust wither under the grinding wheels of runaway capitalism. There are last bastions of support in places where endowments and historical legacies carry enough weight, but the center cannot hold as individual states and federal programs gut funding and slash horizons. Hell, Peter Higgs recently said he would not be able to produce an effective tenure case in today’s environment (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system). That should give us all a great deal of pause.

Games in particular are at the crux of this in several spaces: it’s nearly impossible to say ‘we don’t know enough about games and need to explore them as media of communications in their own right before we consider the feasibility of using them for specific purposes’ — initial calls for proposals almost always include comparisons to traditional measures of assessment in other areas, a call to ensure a game is an effective preparatory experience to a standardized test or an effective intervention as compared to measure X from field Y. At the same time, any work without explicit commercial impact outcomes and/or short-term societal benefits has the pleasure of being featured in Senator Flake’s Waste Report: your tax dollar poured down the hole of making games when we should be researching how to build better bombs or whatever else. Commercial and foundation support is also possible, but of course these are even more egregious in some of the application claims and goals attached to funding and support. Pitching investors is, after all, pitching. And games, because of the medium and the connotations around it by the general populace, are even more challenging — the need to recast them as broad media of communications capable of societal good and not murder-simulators is still ever present, as evidenced by the recent comments from the White House in January.

Furthermore, I was struck sitting in Matt’s talk that his position on being careful and direct about the purpose of a project, its projected impact, and the role of art and critique and choice and consumption was wonderful, but it was nuanced. America today is not a place where nuance can be effectively condensed to a headline, soundbite or meme. When we feel we must confess our sins as a nation, one probably need look no further than Twitter, as we lay bare our atrocious acts and motivations 140 characters at a time (using the larger character limit is, in itself, a sin against humanity). Even our President* does it now! I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot of academics, artists, designers, and developers concerned about the direction of the country, and that our voice has amounted to far too little. When I observe the national discourse as a system, I’d note that the right seems to advance an ever-more extreme position, with the seeming assumption that they will be effective by articulating a position as far from center as possible, and possibly falling back on some points. The left keeps trying to be reasonable, which allows the right to (a) recast the center as a position right of true center, and (b) know that any effort of compromise will wind up in their favor. And so there is an increasing focus on articulating hard-left positions, because rhetoric in this country is a matter of amalgamating a position between two poles, and journalism is a tale of ‘two sides’.

And so what I want to say here, explicitly, is that to a certain extent the system in which we must engage in order to accrue resources to do work, the metrics and assessments by which we must justify our time, and the environment of discourse in which our work is being contextualized and received, dictates that to some extent we need to speak to its aspirational purpose, if only to justify its existence. Failure to do so leaves the medium stripped of a form of intellectualism and rhetoric that it requires to exist as something more than commercial media.

Art & Aspiration

The other simultaneous line of thinking that ran counter to all of that as I considered Matt’s talk was the need to describe work in aspirational goals and terms not because of its present impact, but because that is a key component in the process of art and design. One of the key roles of art, in addition to acting as a societal mirror, giving voice to multiple opinions and views, challenging authority and exploitation, expression of the human condition, and many more, is one of fantastical storytelling: the imagining of differences or alternatives to our current plight and representing those ideas and possibilities in ways to be considered by the public. And I often consider games, particularly experiential educational games, in this context.

One of the best things games such as September 12th can do is to keep alive a sustained criticism of action. Even if, in the end, it cannot stop the War on Terror, it reminds other members of our society that there are those that do not agree. It speaks truth to power. It keeps alive the notion that things do not have to be as they are.

That is a primary role of art in times of darkness, to inspire, to give hope, to lend strength, to connect. And America today can feel a very keen, dystopian, fascist, kind of hopelessness. And so while we should not represent work in games in terms that overpromise impact, I also want to recognize the real and true impact of the arts in times such as these. The photography of Pete Souza. The satire of Andy Borowitz. The design of Raul Solis. The field notes of Adam Draplin. The games of Robin Hunicke. The work of so many artists reminding us to challenge what is happening, to remind us others are out there, to remember to hope.

As I sat in that room listening to Matt’s talk on September 12th, I sat with a room full of people, some of whom also believed in its message. And that is an impact we must also be careful to articulate. If that happens enough, then we can end the war on terror — and while that is aspirational in scale, everything starts somewhere.

Respectfully submitted,

-A Phelps, 2108

PS: I want to be clear in the above that Matt’s talk was incredible, and if it’s posted online or updated I will update this piece with a link to it. I also want to be clear the above is merely *my* thoughts and reaction to it. His work stands on its own as being a fantastic ‘well played’ lecture, and he may very well agree with what I’ve written here summarizing pieces of it or it may be I did a poor job in understanding what he was ultimately working to convey. I’ve just been thinking about it ever since, and as my thoughts have crystalized I wanted to share them.

Also I reached out to Matt before posting this, and we are to a large extent, as I suspected, in agreement on a lot of it. He’s the very definition of a wonderful colleague — pushing me to think in ways I haven’t before, about ways his work inform and intersect my own, and open and willing to share.