A week in news

This week, people in Britain were concerned about the European Football Tournament; the economic instabilities and associated political instabilities in Greece but also elsewhere such as Egypt; the ‘Tax’ scandal of Comedian Jimmy Carr and to a lesser extent, the G20 summit addressing the environmental future of the world. The current political zeitgeist always will seem more important than the long term view, such is the nature of elected governments who seek a next term. There was an interesting set of revelations about Members of Parliament who were addressing their own mental health experiences, which brought a public discussion of the subject.

It is often said that human beings are not very good rational animals due to their disporportionate attention to the status quo over their continuation and long term circumstances. I find it disturbing. The international issues concerning the G20 are perhaps not as easily made relevant to the public because of how abstract the climate issues would seem to be. That said, Britain is continually experiencing unprecedented rainfall which has associated issues of flooding.I really wish I could say that the G20 summit in Rio took my attention and that I’d have something profound to say about it, but my lack of knowledge about it and the lack of exposure of news that I’ve had says enough. Instead, I’ll take this post to address the issue of taxation.

When it was announced that various famous people were involved in a scheme where their income was invested into a fund (which apparently supported emerging musical artists) to the effect of alleviating their tax obligations, it brought a media furore towards mainly one person: the comedian Jimmy Carr. While 3/4 of Take That were involved with the same scheme, there was no sense of hypocrisy or anger towards them, the notable thing about Carr is that much of his humour reflected an authentic disdain for the Con-Dem coalition. Carr’s humour in the ’10 O’Clock Live’ show had an appeal to a disenchanted young adult audience. Many people are part of the economic situation, where upward social mobility is a quaint myth and aspiration has a horrible taste to utter. Being the vocal piece for an audience is a very special thing. Carr’s jokes often involve hinting at, or explicitly addressing very horrible things, but often in a self-conscious way knowing that a mature audience will be disgusted by this, and in this way establishes a collusion with an audience that creates a comic moment (it’s funnier hearing it than describing it). The essence of the criticism lies on the fact that ‘banker bonuses’ and ‘tax havens’ were the subject of his jokes, and being part of a tax reducing scheme (although legal) shows a level of hypocrisy that not only undermines his reputation, but also the jokes originally said.

I’m a fan of Jimmy Carr’s bitter acerbic humour, not least because I’m a bitter acerbic person. It’s one thing to kick a public figure when they are down, or even when they are up, like ridiculing Footballer Rooney’s victory goal by pointing out that he has had hair surgery; but its another thing to kill a joke that once had potency. It is often complained about that there is a certain tired cynicism about a lack of sincerity about public figures and politics, things like this are the essence of such a worry. I cannot help but become cynical when a comedian points out a great unfairness while participating in similar. Carr has apologised and seems sincere about it, his reputation will probably recover, but the great jokes on tax havens and the priviledged rich are the greater victim. The comedic power of criticism is undermined.

Sinistre*

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Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part II:

This post continues my discussion of Chris Bateman’s talk presented on video games. I will start off with a digression.

The soundtrack

One of the great innovations of the 20thC was the cinema. Cinema captures social history and combined storytelling with visual imagery. Eventually the cinema integrated music into its performance. Films in very early periods involved an organist or performer pianist who accompanied a score. Eventually the music scores became part and parcel of the film product and less of a performance than a tape playing on a screen with speakers blaring. The soundtrack in my view is an addition to the repertory of serious music, this can be evidenced by the fact that quintessentially classical composers have created soundtracks for films, such as Georges Auric, member of the visionary les six coalition of French Composers wrote the score to Passport to Pimlico. Philip Glass contributed to the film classic American Psycho and some composers have gained a name for themselves as soundtrack composers.

Soundtrack composition has become an art form, and it is still evolving. There are exceptionally notable and innovative things that occur in the art of soundtrack. The use of the highly dissonant minor second clashing sound of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho evokes the fear and suspense of the inevitable in the iconic shower scene, likewise, who can forget the use of a minor second upward movement in the John Williams’ Jaws. There are aspects of true originality in the soundtrack. A very recent example of this is the Zimmerman soundtrack to the film Inception. A key plot point to the film involves the association with an Edith Piaf song, which is then slowed down to an exceptionally painfully long drone to form the main theme of the film. This involves a level of innovation, as this is a reference to the nature of the film (experiencing dreams and time through a different rate of ordinary reality) and turns a very sweet Piaf song into something very sinister sounding.

My personal favourite soundtrack of all time is not the most easy to listen to. It is John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back score. This score is highly modernist, atonal and dissonant at times. There are elements of Romanticism (through the Leia and Han romance theme leitmotif or Yoda’s theme). The conflict in the score is between the styles of modernism and romanticism. This is marked much more in this film than any of the other Star Wars films, which lean more on the Romantic/Mahlerian/Wagnerian/R. Straussian. There are aspects in the Empire Strikes Back which are so daring as a soundtrack, so modernist, it gives respectability and power to what the modernist visionaries like Schoenberg and Berg represented in their music. The theme to the Battle of Hoth is utterly surprising to me how an audience took this part of the score with conviction. 60 years previously if something like that were performed in a concert hall there would have been a walk-out!

Relating back to the notion of Video Games. It has been acknowledged on a variety of fronts that one very powerful aspect of well-recognised games is its soundtrack. How notable is the simple theme to the NES Super Mario classic, or the Zelda soundtrack. One thing that Destre often repeats to us is that popular song has not advanced very much since the Lied (German Classical art song).

In praise of conservatism

I wish to introduce an aesthetic notion of conservatism. Conservatism here, I confine as a set of standards in a work that would entertain putative aspects of being aesthetically beautiful or successful even if they are not particularly innovative formalistically, or rely on old  or well established styles.

The video game soundtrack, and the art of the soundtrack is generally quite conservative. I’m not fully sure why but I suspect there are psychological reasons why film sound tracks generally seem musically behind stylistically to lots of other contemporary music. This is not however to undermine it. Composers such as John Williams is essentially a Romantic/modernist in various moves. Bernard Herrman brought Modernism which was a half century old to cinema. This is quite innovative as a soundtrack, but as music, I’m less sure that it’s especially avant-garde.

My contention is that many games would work in the same way. The Modern Warfare series, or RPGs are based on often tired and well-worn tropes, storyline and gameplay elements. They are based on formulae that are known to succeed and are well received by gamers. Often it is the little bits that are different about each individual game that is entirely new that makes such a game particularly innovative, despite the rest of it following all the other rules about its genre. many of these successful games follow much of what has come before, and adds a bit. To state a very tired phrase made in PC magazines: ‘evolution, not revolution’.

This isn’t to say that they aren’t good games, in fact in many ways they are great games. They are however, as Bateman would claim, hardly imaginative and less engaging because of this. Many games that are part series have taken away a lot surprise and offers expectation of what has come before. I’m bemused to find out for instance, that there is a Lego Batman game! That said, I played Lego Star Wars and it did gloss over some of the darker aspects. It’s as absurd as how many action figures in the 1990s were marketed to children who weren’t old enough to actually watch these films.

There are two points I wish to make about ‘conservative’ games. Firstly, many of these games rely on things that make them innovative, that are not necessarily unique about games. A good screenplay, good dialogue, soundtrack and visuals. Buildings can be appreciated as artistic pieces. Bateman himself pointed out how many people have come to know architectural terminology through playing games. What makes conservative games good are that they rely on already established principles or even embellish and add to this. I’m not saying that there cannot be a great and original video game soundtrack, however it will be considered as music and not as game. We may say that such a conservative example of a game is good not because it is a good game, but because it is a good way of using music or drama through games.

What I wish to point out here is that there are more conventional categories to be applied to games outside of the Bateman schema. An obvious point though this is, what is not obvious is why such games may be considered successful (critically and commercially). I deem that this is because they obey conservative criteria.

What I wish to draw out is an historical analogy. The two great composers of the 1910s were Mahler and Schoenberg, Mahler was to some extent a conservative Romantic while Schoenberg is the radical visionary, games may work in the same way and in my personal view Mahler and Schoenberg have their merits as composers, but for vastly different reasons. Mahler is the surviving Romantic who draws from the late 1800s as his source, much like say, the music of Adele or Amy Winehouse are evocative of late 20thC soul, nice music but hardly innovative. Schoenberg hower is the prophet to a new vision (or so we at Noumenal Realm think). Serialism is a re-definition of musical style, although Bachian in aspects, it is a radically different sonic experience to the audience expectations their contemporamous diet of Brahms and Liszt.

This tension is an historic condition. As some games try to be more innovative and break boundaries and create new rules, others rely on already established ones to be successful. Bateman’s criteria of appeal to imagination for games reminds me of this historical-cultural tension. We will always have the conservative stylists against the Nouveau. I think there’s a place for conservatism. Glenn Gould was once questioned about how he considers both Schoenberg and Richard Strauss as favoured composers, his answer is that although they were worlds apart in style, they were historical contemporaries, both facing the rise of the National Socialists and the death of Old Europe. The conservatives and the Nouveau will have to live together, and both belong to their time.

 

Michael

(On the use of) Truncated English

My female friends and a few male colleagues have this exceptionally annoying habit. They refuse to use the words ‘I’ or ‘I am’ or ‘I shall’ or ‘I feel’ and other such uses of pronouns with this awful truncation. It is so insipid one may fall it social mediaspeak or even just mediaspeak. So often I get texts with things like ‘mucho excited for tonight xxx’ or ‘seeing you later [Antisophie]!’.

I feel this cheapens English to some infantile notion where words seem more economically used to the compromise of grammar or explicit context. The problem with such truncated expressions is that a sense of meaning or context is lost. This is particularly the case when I got a phone recently without putting in my contact numbers, or when I get called or texted or emailed by an unidentified person who I don’t yet recognise. To be told ‘seeing you later xxx’ makes me both wonder: is this a present tense usage for a future tense? Is the ‘I look forward to’ presumed or elliptical? The use of ellipsis is definately not my strong point in such expressions.

English language has a space for being colloquial but I do think it is insipid when such colloquialisms infect all levels of heirarchies. One expects persons of authority for instance to be more explicative than implicit with their language to remove any sense of ambiguity. I feel that this turn of colloquial language is moving to a context where certain things are to be assumed rather than established, like the legitimacy of saying ZOMG or the presumption of ‘I’. Sinistre said to me quite sailiently that such a turn in language is useful in the age where people shorten their views and self expressions to 140 character tweets (looking at you @noumenalrealm) or facebook posts that don’t really communicate anything partuicularly profound. This is the age of the soundbite, where punchy expressions tick and quotable people can be RT’d (that is to say, retweeted).I’m not quite sure if this is limited to British English, I do hope it is as localised as possible, and that it’s not terribly infectious.

Antisophie

Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part I: Game Criticism and ‘Bateman schema’

(I’ve decided to bump this post forward of everything else because as I’ve told Antisophie: Goffman has been dead for 30 years, a post on him can wait a bit longer.)

This weekend, after swimming in an ice cold water pool, I decided to venture to see a talk held by the good people of St. Barnabas Church in Southfields, SW18, which is a couple of SW away from me, I went to see one of the few consistent viewers of my blog, Chris Bateman of Only a Game and apparently even has a wikipedia page! Bateman is also responsible for this game, the digital equivalent of an ad hominem, but I digress.

The topic of Bateman’s talk goes through a lot of bases, for example Kendall Walton’s landmark work on Mimesis as Make-Believe, a paper which has had influence in philosophy outside of philosophical aesthetics. Bateman also addresses two levels of critiques about games. One pertains to the extent to which they are engaging to the imagination and another is the level to which on a brain level, they appeal to certain categories of stimuli. Let’s start off with a bit of exegesis.

Games and the imagination

There is an implicit bias in Bateman against games modelled on action movies and more favour towards games which engage the imagination, where representation of the things imagined are as limited as possible. Something like Flatland or rulebook based tabletop games are implicitly favourable than the conventional blockbuster games that rule the commercial roost. I think this is immaterial to the point but I do find it interesting how our personal outlooks influence our philosophies in no insignificant fashion.

Bateman argues that the uniqueness of games are the ways in which they engage in exercising the imagination, perhaps even challenging them. There is something refreshingly avant-garde about this claim and if it were made about music I would wholly agree and claim it as an Adornian/modernist idea. Imagination engages the gamer’s mind in a variety of ways which are explained in much more detail in Bateman’s blog such as through his discussion of Walton’s prop theory and many of his other posts on his accompanying iHobo blog, often much of it I barely understand.

What I will say is that there is an analogue with the modernists of the last century with their ideals of authentic art against inauthentic art with visionary games and anodyne games. This invariably cuts into the issue of the commercialism of games in a similar way that Adorno was concerned with the inauthenticity of the anodyne nature of mass culture. One significant way in which the analogy does not work (and probably an important one) is the means of production. Adorno considered much of the dullness of mass culture to be linked inextricably to its means of production. Bateman by contrast works in an industry where the commodity (the game) can be potentially digitally reproduced and offers a potentially unlimited resource as a game can be reproduced digitally through the likes of Steam downloads or other such non-physical retailers.

The idea of criticism and and the idea of success

Implicit in Bateman’s discussion is his idea that video games are an art form and his work has gone beyond the question of whether games are an art form (which I’m sure is almost a banal question for many people these days). What is more interesting is that Bateman seems to be creating a notion for game criticism in a way akin to literary or music criticism. Maybe one day someone will do PhDs in gamer criticism in English Language departments, mostly because some English Language departments in universities hardly even do things like erm, 18th Century novels or Medieval literature, you know, the staples, but I digress (again). Another factor that we might consider about games is the notion of success. What is a successful game? We can consider this both in terms of commercial and aesthetic success, and of course, aesthetically successful games need not be commercially successful. We shall come across this issue later.

Games and categories: introducing the ‘Bateman Schema’

The other aspect of critique about video games involves sets of categories. Lets call them Bateman Schema. Bateman linked these to neurological concepts, namely, generic sectors of the brain and localised sectors that link to certain kinds of responses. For example, fear is a potential aspect of a game, namely simulated fear. The offer of success is another, the potential for co-operation with other agents/players; dealing with randomness/unpredictability. Bateman links these concepts with brain regions, sectors and hormones. I think for a large number of reasons this is very difficult as the onus on this claim is empirical and raises methodological issues such as the naturalistic fallacy, the critique of ‘neurotrash’ or the potentially misleading way of identifying areas in the brain as unified autonomous structures and mechanisms, in other words, can we really say there is a ‘fear’ centre of the brain? The idea of neurotrash is addressed by the philosopher Raymond Tallis, who is also a medical practitioner who relies on brain studies for his work. .

This is not to say I find these categories abhorrent or wrong, far from it. Whether these categories or not are biological is an issue I could happily put aside, I think something like a ‘Weberian ideal type’ or akin to a Kantian/Aristotelian conceptual category would seem more relevant as it is less metaphysically suspect (well maybe not a Kantian category).  The typology of concepts established by Bateman are what I said to him are the most interesting and innovative aspects of his notion of game. Especially towards the critical notion of a game’s success. Many of the aspects of a game’s failure or success can be determined to the extent of these categories. A game which has much to offer in terms of fear and the payoff of surviving that fear (success) or the degree to which a game may fail may be determined by these factors. There was one category in particular which really resonated with me, which isn’t particularly a strong one for many games and that is association.

I have a strong association with playing the piano, often when I play, I go through many memories and feelings, many of these feelings and memories won’t make sense to anyone else and it becomes a highly personal experience. When I thought of this, I also thought that playing the piano isn’t a game, but it is an activity of playing. Bateman identified the semantic indeterminability of the french ‘Jeux’ (meaning both play and game) to highlight this. Playing is a slightly different activity to gaming highlighted by the instance of playing the piano. Maybe piano playing is a game, but I hardly succeed at it, and I don’t really involve other people and the amount of fear in public performing is so terrible it wouldn’t make a very nice game!

I was also thinking of games that I have fond associations with. Franchise games are very good at this. One of my all time favourite games is Grandia II, which I found in a bargain basement sale when my dad was buying a washing machine at comet years ago, when a game establishes a world that is convincing and characters with conviction, you can develop feelings for them and engage with them. It is this notion of association that makes a game personal and yet a very active activity. It is in my view the one way in which my experience of Mass Effect 2 and 3 favour better than when I played Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, because the world in the latter was not emotionally or personally engaging enough with the Dohvakin protagonist (who is rather wooden).

Bateman’s categories allow a way for gaming criticism to emerge. Good games and bad games can be considered through these schema. Bad games are a very good case in point, there are some games that I’ve played where the amount of fear is too high, or the success payoff is too low that I have lost interest in it. There are many games which I’ve admired for many reasons which eventually fail in one aspect that sometimes I may stick with as a way of compromising and accepting that other aspects outweigh the bad things (my general experience with JRPGs with generic storylines but fun level/skill trees). I do think that with these criteria, each of the schema that Bateman has advanced to not have equal weighting. Modern Warfare may be critically well considered for the degree to which it integrates multiplayer elements, but maybe not in terms of an engaging story or necessarily fear. In other words, what makes one game successful does not apply as a rule of thumb for all games. Again this schema raises the question of whether our notion of success is commercial or critical. I can perfectly envisage for instance, that using these Bateman schema (I think I’ll call it that from now on).

What is very unique about the Bateman Schema is that this is his best case for making games an art form. This is because these factors are experientially relevant to the agent, in addition they are perhaps unique to games in a way that other art forms are not. So in short, I think the Bateman schema provide a very useful way of considering games in a way that is aesthetically relevant. It may also provide a scheme and methodology for considering a game’s commercial success on a pre-release basis (if one were thinking as a market researcher), and this also highlights the ambiguity of what success is for a game? Is success critical (i.e. based on its individual merits) or commercial (based on its sales)? Bateman in various points of his writing prides himself on having worked on the games of the Pratchett Discworld series, which he claims were commercial failures but had a cult following. It’s interesting however that his more financially successful game was Bratz: Rock Angels, this fact aggravates this division of our notion of success. Bateman’s characterisation of games through this dual approach of imagination and the brain centres can be used to frame conceptual problems that are not necessarily solvable, but exist in games inherently as a commercial enterprise that may be also an artistic endeavour.

In my next post on Bateman’s talk, I will address a more specific issue which relates more to my own familiar area of interest. This is the issue that I chose to bring up with him in person.

Michael

Celebrations in Austerity Britain

Britishness is very much in vogue lately it seems. Nothing says British cultural identity like losing in competitions (Eurovision, the Euro football tounament, Oscars and even British book awards). Mortifying embarrassment compined with a pretense of social reservedness, rainy days and long queues are the superficial things that many people identify with Britishness.

I don’t care much for what the Jubilee represents, nor am I terribly excited about it. Perhaps its telling that there isn’t really a strong countercultural presence that is visible about an issue like this. I was forced to write a piece about the Diamond Jubilee because as Michael said: ‘Nobody else wants to write one, and we should think of austerity- I, I mean, posteriority’. I included his Freudian slip because austerity seems to be the name of the game for many people in the country.

I am in the technical parlance, broke as shit at the moment, I’m working this weekend simply because I can, and because it will pay me. For my family we aren’t doing too much, although there are talks of a few spontaneous barbeques and my older relatives have spoken fondly of their experiences of street parties during the 1977 Jubilee. I’m happy that lots of people are going to enjoy 2 extra days off, some public sector friends of mine will have 3 days off, so including the weekend, that’s a 5 day holiday. I suppose that’s a reasonable price for a reduced pension.

I’m too busy do celebrate the Jubilee. I won’t be completely miserable about it, although perhaps reserved is a more apt term. I appreciate the positive values of modern Britain. I appreciate the fact that the monarchy is a cultural institution bigger than many things, bigger than football, horse racing or TOWIE. There is something somewhat assuring about tradition. I care not for the divine right of kings and queens, but I find the modern royals relatable, especially when they have scandals and family problems, because what family isn’t without failing relationships, substance abuse and very uncomfortable allegations? The sentimentality of a shared living memory of the Royal family is something very special to the British consciousness, consider the royal wedding last year where Canadian, Portugese, Indian  and Israeli friends of mine seemed to find the novelty of royal families eccentric and fabulous.

Having a shared cultural identity is pretty nice after all. I think its great that strangers who live near each other as neighbours can come together and raise a toast to the Queen. The way I see it is this: when you are in a pub or bar, and the alcohol is flowing, you will toast to anything so long as the conditions are correct for inebriation and/or joy. I’ll raise a glass for the Queen, if the wine is free, and that’s it really: a public holiday is our figurative Chablis. Who would say no to a day off? As it happens, I would, as I can’t afford it right now.

Having something to celebrate is an important thing in difficult times. Although in difficult times, it doesn’t matter what you celebrate sometimes. It’s nice to see the eccentrics come out this weekend to celebrate, eccentricity is the pride of Britishness for me, not to mention its multiculturalism and liberal democratic tendencies. So for me, the Jubilee means in this period of Austerity Britain: a quiet smile for those having fun, getting on with things in a way that doesn’t actually change anything significant in my otherwise dire life and lastly, being obliged to write this blog post.

Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got work tomorrow.

Sinistre