Rediscovering musicianship in 2013

I think its fair to say that its official. It’s only been a few rehearsals so far, but I am part of a group of musicians who are performing together. We are a group of about 4-6 friends (depending on who is available/venue/available instruments) and between us is a lot of friendship, love and passion for performing.

I think it becomes official that we are a committed group when my friend who hates playing the Cello announces to great shock: I think its time to bring this along to our playing sessions. I have been rediscovering my musicianship over the past couple of years, by regularly practicing piano again and performing last year to an audience. Rediscovering involves an inward reflection of finding what it was in my past that made me a musician and re-learning what I used to know.

Lately I have gone beyond rediscovery and I am going into new and uncharted territories. I have experience playing as a piano soloist, but I am now going into accompanist mode. I’ve been playing accompanist lately for a singer, a trumpeter and a saxophonist. I’ve attempted to go through a piano duet (Faure’s Bercuse from Dolly Suite) and I am exploring some pieces that I’d love to play in an ensemble context. However it seems that I have a lot of emphasis on Gabriel Faure’s repetoire. There is an odd thing that the music I listen to is vastly different to the music I perform, and the classical music that I tend to lean to is vastly different to the music I want to play.

As a performer I am strongly leaning to the Romantic and to a much lesser degree the classical and baroque period. However if I were to talk intellectually about music my interests lay in composers like Bach and Schoenberg. I arrogantly said this week that ‘Beethoven may be a brilliant composer but Bach is a genius’. There is an odd tension between my performing life and my intellectual and aesthete sensibilities. On the way to the rehearsal I had a lot of heavy metal playing on my mp3 player. I play a lot of indie and other various genres on my monthyl playlists and I am very wide about trying to find music that I want to discover and listen to, but when it comes to musicianship as a form of self expression – things like black metal, heavy metal or Schoenberg go to the wayside in favour of Debussy, Faure and ballad like pieces. I’m a contradiction: Romantic at heart, but modernist at mind.

I think there should be more to be said for this strange contradiction. I may explore my musical sensibilities in future posts, especially as my involvement as a musician has expanded greatly recently. What a joyous thing it is to be able to perform with friends! I’m also going to try and break out my clarinet in the next couple of months…

Michael

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On Guilty Pleasures (or, shall we eat cake?)

The more I think about it, the more I see the proliferation of guilty pleasures. What is a guilty pleasure? A guilty pleasure is a thoughtless form of satisfaction, it requires little critical effort and one engages with it in one’s own terms. The more a guilty pleasure is consumed, the more it is made as a desirable end. A guilty pleasure is something that usually one knows that they should for whatever reason know better than enjoying. One should know that there are more thoughtful, more refined or more engaging sensibilities. But for whatever reason, we will always have our guilty pleasure. So ends my definition.

I was thinking about this from one particular thing. It started with a bus advert, it was for the upcoming Sly Stallone film ‘Bullet to the Head’, which reminded me of how comforting I have found Stallone films. The comfort comes from the predictable nature of action films. It is predictable that there will be juxtapositions: of the older man handling a post 2010s world with a 1970s outlook; the juxtaposition of how physical violence is socially unacceptable, but seeing it on film gives one such an animalistic buzz when it is executed with comedy and finesse, or a one-liner. The year is 2013 and there are a whole lot of bus adverts with a 60-something action hero returning to doing films of a genre that was out of date two decades ago. However I might poo-poo on the action film. I grew up with it and many other people my age and older had, and it is a guilty pleasure. For all the critical things I have said I’m probably going to watch the film in the cinema and I’m probably going to laugh at the gags and have a good time with my friends. I find it interesting how the film critic, who is supposedly the bastion of cultural sensibility and critique, have so easily chosen to take an uncritical view of a film.

I think perhaps the most notable way of showing the guilty pleasure and how it affects our mindset is when certain topics come to mind that evoke comforting associations and a completely different way of thinking to normal, this may involve things such as: cake, sex, alcohol, LAN parties, football, poetry slams (delete as appropriate). I’ve been following the film reviews of the upcoming Kim Ji-Woon directed film ‘The Last Stand’ and many have pointed out how the film is mediocre, except for the fact that it serves as a return of action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Richard Roeper gives it a B- review. The editor of Shortlist Magazine, Martin Robinson (sic) said something to the effect of how despite how he may boast of his refined cultural sensibilities: he has seen The Seventh Seal maybe twice, but he’s seen Commando over 160 times. The Guardian Film Review’s Peter Bradshaw reflects on effectively giving the film a metaphorical get out of jail freecard just for reinforcing the cult of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ‘good old days’ of action films. A guilty pleasure is a great way to hide critical thinking.

The guilty pleasure may be seen as harmless and sometimes it is not necessarily making an explicit point about the world. However, it is hardly apolitical, insofar as the following truism remains. If one chooses to indulge in a guilty pleasure, they do so willingly to the avoidance of something else. This is not harmless in itself, but what if we are surrounded by advertising appealing to guilty pleasures to a degree that temptation and it acknowledgement is impossible. Advertising for package holidays, nice shoes, the next series of your favourite drama series, celebrity gossip on your news feeds or the desserts that are right by the door on supermarkets the country over. If the way we spend our time is oriented or centred around guilty pleasures? Where is the time to think, and think differently? Where is the time to challenge the status quo? It’s one thing to talk about figuratively voting with our feet, what we choose to watch on television (or whether we choose to watch it) is something we can control. But we cannot escape many of the advertisements ubiquitous in social spaces to remind us of the ways we can find hedonistic enjoyment.

I definitely would hold that the guilty pleasure is something that is here to stay and it would be wrong to deny this. I must admit that I have mine. In my mission to redefine my body mass through weight training and other strenuous activities on a regular basis, the proclusion of cake (inter alia) is advisable. However my other guilty pleasures involve little games on my smartphone; the occaisional day in or night out with my friends; comic books; or old-school heavy metal tunes pretend to say that I have moved on from. Despite the ways in which I am otherwise Spartan and ascetic. I still accept the occaisional frequent guilty pleasure.

Part of me wonders if Adorno would have really denied the importance of guilty pleasures in addressing its ideological implications for capitalism. Adorno himself was a fan of very bad cowboy western films. I am in a broad agreement with the Adornian point that a culture of satiation has political ramifications for late Capitalism and the eroision of counter-discourses. Shall we let ourselves eat cake?

Michael (based on a conversation with Antisophie)

Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
 
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.

Dispositions

Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.

Disinterest

Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael

Facial Hair and I: on Movember

(Image: Friedrich Nietzsche, the patron saint of awesome moustaches)

Perhaps its the cool thing to have themes of the month. This month is National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo). This month is also ‘Movember’, a month in which men raise awareness for male cancers by growing a moustache. This post is going to be about facial hair, my relationship with facial hair. I will also muse on how men have relationships.

Me and my hair
(Image, X men character: Bishop with trimmed moustache-beard)

I have lots of stories about hair. I grew up in the 1990s, when I had little glimpses of hair metal bands, scruffy haired Grunge bands and my older teenaged brother had a pretty nice mane once upon a time when I was an impressionable child (of course now we joke that I look like the oldest sibling). Many of these factors made me admire men and hair. This is perhaps one of the most frivolous aspects of my interests, but I must admit that all those early 90s dudes, plus guys like Conan the Barbarian had an impact on my follicular subconscious.

One particular story I remember was when I was an undergraduate (probably told this enough times already). I was mostly paying attention to studying and the like, and I didn’t look at the mirror that much, and then one day I realised that it had been several months since I looked into a mirror and I had a massive beard and my hair was unrecognisable. I couldn’t recognise my face and it was a very distressing moment to acknowledge that I needed to do other things than read.

My approach to hair hygiene changed over the years and as I am one for rituals I have a personal rule of growing a beard once a year (at least), so I can explore how I look. Last year I grew a beard that then turned into  a moustache, and it attracted quite a bit of humour from my friends. One of my friends said ‘it suits your face, but not who I know you to be’. I consider this the ultimate backhanded compliment.

How I got my moustache
(Image: Marvel Character: Mandarin, sporting nice but possible politically incorrect moustache)

Without even thinking about movember, over October I fulfilled my monthly quota, I was not too motivated about growing the beard but I thought I might as well do it and get it behind me. I tend to mark my accomplishments through quotas, and it makes it overly rational and not so fun. Literally after I shaved it, a friend of mine brought to my attention a movember android app and a mo-bros website, where he was actively raising funds. This friend told me that as the most hirsute guy he knows (backhanded compliment), I have the most potential to have the most awesome moustache, and all I need to do is be part of his ‘team’ for fundraising, he’ll do the rest. Reluctantly I agreed. I had been growing my beard for over a month before I shaved it off, and having to do something like that all over again was quite the chore. However after 17 days I had a full handlebar moustache. My friend was right, I am very hirsute.

The nod
(Image: Tony Stark from Season 2 of Iron Man TAS 1995, mullet + moustache)

In my experience, men have a distinctly gendered set of performance when it comes to communicating with each other. Between my male friends and female friends, I always talk about activities, jokes, and concrete things like historical events or gaming or something we are mutually involved with. Otherwise there would be very little to talk about except the typical British small talk topics (tea, the weather, football).

I’ve found though that sometimes obvious visual similarities can be enough to share an interest. In the TV Show ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’, Larry David refers at times to how bald men relate to each other in having a mutual life of discrimination from wider society. I thought this was hilarious because it makes baldness look like a subculture, or like a social class. But the discrimination is possibly measurable. How many US presidents or UK Prime Ministers have been bald during their term over the past 30 years?

I also thought it was amusing because when my hair was a lot longer, I would get nods of acknolwedgement from other long haired men, as if to say ‘alright mate’. Even if I didn’t know them, there was this odd sense of solidarity of keeping the faith. The same has been with my moustache this month.  

How people have responded to my moustache

It was only about after day 2 of turning my goatee into a handlebar that I realised people were responding to me differently in London. I saw several women looking at me on the tube, I thought it was because they were impressed by the book I was reading: then I realised I was reading an E-Book in a reader, that means they aren’t looking at me because of the book. I then noticed they were smiling. I’m not one for people to smile at me on the tube. It was only about 3 hours later when a colleague was laughing at my moustache (and subsequently said so) that I realised they were comically admiring my moustache.

Responses from men have been different. Most men admire the facial hair, some almost treat me like a war hero, how the act of not shaving above one’s lip merits ‘you are doing a good thing’ from people is the most eccentric thing I’ve ever heard. After all, it’s my friend doing the fundraising!

I have also conversed with people at work who I never normally talk to, since I’m not so big on football I have no expertise on commenting upon which manager got sacked or such and such getting transferred to City, so I normally have little to talk about except work with these men, except maybe a joke or two from time to time. However my moustache has given me social powers in which they talk to me about combing, waxing and other such sartorial graces. I have found facial hair to be a mask, it hides who I really am and makes me look like a sociable being. I like this and eventually I find I grow into the mask, in true Wilde fashion, the mask has become my face.

How men talk to each other

Over the past week I’ve also started playing Minecraft, why is this relevant? Well it seems to me that minecraft has been something I can talk about with my friends as we play and chat on skype, but it seems a general thing that when men have something to talk about as a shared interest, it is a very good window to start talking about other things. As such, while playing minecraft, we ended up talking not just about how to make a bed (three planks, three wool, by the way), but also about dating and relationships; jobs and careers; writing; philosophy and mathematics; how to create a 32 bit processor using redstone, which led to a philosophical discussion about turing machines and the limitations of computation.

When I wear the moustache, I’ve begun talking about prostate cancer and testicular cancer, with men and women, they’ve asked me about that kinds of signs one needs to check for, and that led to a wider discussion about personal heatlh, with many people sharing their own stories about their personal health, or those of others they know, and it became very intimate and candid. If I were using the terminology of Goffman I would say that something like mutual activity or even the moustache has become a form of social prop, from which the possibility of interaction becomes possible, not to say it is necessary condition, but perhaps sufficient condition.

I must ellipsis what I say with ‘in my experience’, as I acknowledge all men are different. However, through activities and shared experiences men I’ve known seem better at opening up. Movember is a really great thing in that it enables a conversation about health and wellness through something else and something almost irrelevant (moustaches). I’ve lost count at the number of times where a conversation about an activity leads to a more emotionally laden conversation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard men in the changing room after a martial arts/football/weights session talking about their kids and their hopes, their loves and their passions, while finishing up their training/session.

Michael

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

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

Hipsters and funny women: Reviewing ‘2 Broke Girls’

Editorial note 22nd March 2013.

 

I have decided to omit this article from the blog because although I don’t have a change of views from the original piece as I wrote it, I do however feel that the show ‘2 Broke Girls’ should not have the critical attention that I attempted to give it, as some of the jokes are just too crass, offensive and I am uncomfortable putting my name to even reviewing the show. Sorry readers.

Michael