Saturday, June 13, 2015

Flying In Draenor: An Academic Question

For a while now Wilhelm has been trying to bring discussions on issues like the recent Blizzard Flying Controversy back to one fundamental question:

"For me, the great unanswered question in all of this remains how much control over their game should a developer be allowed, whether or not the dev’s view of how their game should be played should trump the player’s view, whether MMO studios be dictating a “right way” to play and should players accept that or not?"

With rather delicious irony commenters have largely ridden over that idea, preferring to bang on about whether they do or don't like to see flying in MMOs and whether or not Blizzard are dealing with the issue in an effective or even-handed manner. The notable exception is Azuriel at In An Age, who picks out the same Wilhelm quote I did to topline his own post.

Once again, though, Azuriel quickly becomes more interested in the underlying reason for the decision/reversal, spinning out a convincing explanation for how it might have happened that still doesn't really answer the question Wilhelm is asking. Which is hardly surprising. It's a question that no-one has really been able to answer in the last half century, though entire careers have been built on the attempt.

When I studied English at Cambridge in the early 1980s there was a war going on although I barely noticed it. I was largely taught by dons of the traditionalist mode, who still harked back to the strictures of Empson and Leavis. We mostly worked under the edicts of New Criticism in which close textual reading was everything.

At least I guess we did. I just read the books, turned in the essays on time and tried not to think about it. No-one really talked about this kind of thing in my clique, probably because most of the people I hung out with were reading Maths or Natural Sciences. My crowd was more interested in going to see Dolly Mixture at The Locomotive in between catching a dozen movies a week at the multiplicity of college Film Socs. and crashing every staircase party we could find. I didn't really take my studies seriously at university - I was mostly there for the social life and the popular culture, something I have never regretted and would still recommend as the best way to spend your college years.

In my final year, however, an event occured that made it impossible to ignore the fact that Something Big was happening. A huge row blew up between the Leavisites, the incumbent establishment of the English Department, and their sworn enemies, an ill-defined loose collective of supposed radicals fronted, largely unwillingly, by Frank Kermode.

It all came to a head over the question of whether Colin McCabe, a flag-waver for the Left and for the kind of structural approach to literary analysis abhorred by the Leavisites, believed by some to be both a drug-dealer and arms-runner, should or should not be promoted to full tenure within the English Department of Cambridge University, generally reckoned at that time to be the best in the world.

I remember going to a protest rally of some kind at the Faculty of English. I can't even remember which side it was for although I would by default have been against whatever I perceived to be the status quo. There were film crews from the main TV networks there and I watched it all play out on TV later that evening, almost certainly the only time Structuralism has featured on the Six O'Clock News.

McCabe wrote a clear and entertaining precis of his side of the affair that was published in The New Statesman a few years back. The Leavisites won their battle, McCabe left, Kermode resigned and I graduated and went back to reading comics and playing video games. I was a decade in recovery before I could read another "serious" novel.

That was probably a lucky break because the decade in question was the 1980s and it was a very good time not to be taking yourself too seriously while at the same time taking things that weren't seen as serious very seriously indeed. All the concepts I'd blithely ignored throughout my university career, if indeed I'd known they even existed, blew up around me.

My post-university social circle talked about Derrida and Foucault with the same intensity and informality they talked about Morrissey and Marr. The New Musical Express, my bible since the early 1970s, ceased to be the agit-prop, situationist playground of refugees from the collapsed underground press and instead became the domain of theory-addled autodidacts like Ian Penman and Paul Morley. After they drove it into the ground, commercially if not intellectually, I jumped ship to Smash Hits. Not even ironically although, of course, in the 1980s it was literally impossible to do anything unironically. Ironically.

Postmodernism was the sea in which we swam and I took to it like a fish to water. Nothing meant what it meant and even if it did no-one knew what that was. Every time I tried to explain my take on what William Gibson was getting at in Count Zero or what the lyrics of Rattlesnakes were trying to say, someone would handwave it all away with a derisive "that's the Intentional Fallacy" .

All these years, right up to researching this piece, I believed "The Intentional Fallacy" , which snorts that it's no business of the author to claim he knows what he's writing about, was some key tenet of Structuralist thinking, probably penned by some inscrutable Frenchman in 1975. Guess what? Turns out it was written in the mid 1940s and it forms one of the key planks of The New Criticism so beloved of the structuralism-loathing Leavisites. It's like the way if you go far enough to the Left you meet yourself coming back on the Right. Or something.

If you go to Literary Festivals, something I strongly advise against, or listen to programs like Radio 4's Bookclub, which I absolutely forbid, you will hear a seemingly endless procession of readers asking authors, sometimes aggressively, more often fawningly, what they "meant" by something they wrote. It always strikes me as about as useful an exercise as asking a cat what's on its mind.

Having grown up and formed my ideas in the smelting pot of uncertainty I find it a lot more uncomfortable trying to pin down what something is "for" or what it "means" than I do just letting it be what it wants to be, what I want it to be and what it becomes when those two things rub against each other. This is, in part, why I play MMORPGs the way I play them, why I often state that all MMOs are sandboxes and why, as a user, I never feel constrained by the intentions of makers.

In reply to something I said in the comment thread to Wilhelm's post linked at the top of this piece he observed "If they opt to not add flying, who is somebody to then exclaim that such an interpretation of the game is wrong? I mean, by bringing that up you are, by analogy, almost claiming domain to edit somebody else’s work."

Well, yes, I am. I do lay claim to that domain. It's a domain that all readers have over all books, all viewers over all films and all players over all games. I edit the work in my mind and it becomes my work. Every reading of every novel is a new work of art.

Although, of course, all of this is breaking down under technology, or perhaps it is. Playing an online game is like reading a book with the author still writing it. It's as if the words on the page could change while you slept so the character who died last night is alive again in the morning and the city she lived in has become a village. The malleability of form must surely soon outpace the ability of critics to parse it, if that didn't happen long ago.

Gaming may be at the forefront of the wave but it's a wave beneath which all certainty in narrative art will soon be drowned. This isn't a very helpful response to Wilhelm's question but it's the one I have. It's just too big a question for anything plainer.

Oh, when it comes to MMOs, the pragmatic answer might be that these are commercial projects, in which the only real point of conflict is what makes the most money now versus what might make more money for a longer time and the only "right way" to play might be the one that keeps the money rolling in, but that's an argument that derails when it runs up against the abutment of art. An Economics or Business Studies grad writing in response to Wilhelm's question might make it fly but I can't.

I can only respond as who I am - ex-punk, post-postmodernist, English grad, vacillating moral relativist. Until tomorrow, when I might be someone else, with a different answer.


  1. Never commented before, though been reading your blog for a while. Just wanted to say fantastic post, indeed there have been a ridiculous stream of fantastic posts recently.

    Sorry my comment reads like a spam bot comment, perhaps I have just failed some sort of self imposed turing test. Anyway, keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks! When the real A.I.s arrive I hope they're just as friendly!

  2. This was a long read for me with a lot of references I vaguely got or missed completely. I do agree with you though. MMOs are strange because there's an artistic vision, a business motive, and a consumer fanbase that wants the best product for their individual tastes.

    To me, I just find it strange that they wanted to overhaul what has been in the game for so long, especially when it has become a big part of the game overall!

    1. It was an odd post to do in some ways. I started off replying to Wilhelm's thread and it became obvious I had too much to say for a comment. I wanted to get into the Intentional Fallacy thing but I realized I wasn't 100% up to speed with it myself even though I reference it all the time. I started researching it and found it was related to New Criticism, which I should have known but didn't, and then I started digging into it and this is where we ended up...

      I'm never sure about links - partly I think it's a good use of the technology to link to things rather than explaining them in the post itself but then I think that if people were that interested they could just google the names/terms anyway and I worry that people will feel somehow obligated to click through and read a load of stuff that goes into waaaaay more detail than they need to know. Personally I rarely click through links when I read unless I am very puzzled by something but I know other people are more diligent.

      In the end, though, I put more in than I usually would because I only skim-read some of the stuff and I'd like to go back and read it properly myself later so the links are kind of bookmarks for me. If nothing else I hope a few people might watch the Dolly Mixture clip - they're probably my favorite band of all time, even now. I used to keep a website up about them back in the 1990s before everything like that moved to MySpace and blogs...

  3. "literally impossible to do anything in unironically". I really enjoyed this article, thanks for posting. Once, when I was in high school I did an essay comparing the queen is dead and husker du's xen arcade, and your post ramps up nostalgia for those days. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I really miss the 1980s...

  4. Film has been a few steps down this path already. We had Ted Turner trying to colorize the MGM library back in the 80s, which drew a huge outcry over the sanctity of the original artistic vision from all sort of people, George Lucas included. And then, or course, we had George turn around later and re-mastered some of his own work, telling his fans to piss up a rope because it was his work so his artistic vision was all that mattered, sanctity of the originals be damned.

    This is the question of the digital age, where works of art are surprisingly malleable. Not only can Blizzard change their world and George Lucas his films, but Amazon can force an update on your Kindle and leave you with a new revision of your ebook whether you like it or not. (Or just remove it.) The moving cursor once having writ moves on... unless you use the backspace key, in which case you can undo the who thing.

    And yet nobody has really taken the bait when it comes to my question... and this is hardly the first time I have posed it... even you. Even me, really, since I offered up the question in multiple forms but have never bothered to answer it myself. And I will stipulate to not actually having an answer. I tend to be a fatalist and would no more demand a drastic change to a game than I would demand that the Louvre make the Mona Lisa blonde and give her bigger tits. But that doesn't mean I do not have opinions.

    Then again, we are in this great age of "interaction" where everything has to have a comment thread so that the consumers can interact with the artist, for whatever value of art you pick. (I'd love to see the Louvre put a comment box under the Mona Lisa. Can you imagine? "It's so small!" "Nice tits" "What about the poor?") Blizzard has forums, they say they like feedback, well this is what they got; flying must be in Draenor regardless of what you think would be "best" for the game.

    It reminds me of an incident at my own alma mater where a student in the art department made a life size male, positioned so as to sit in a chair. His idea was to put it in locations around campus so that people could "interact" with it. However, it was made of a light weight material and some guys from a fraternity "interacted" with it by taking it and sticking it in the frat house, dressing it up, and a list of other indignities.

    This, of course, made the front page of the school paper, leading with a tirade from the artists about how dare they do this horrible thing to art. And all I could think was how he said he wanted people to interact with it, and that was what happened. It turned out he wanted people to interact in the way he thought they should. The world is like that.

    But, despite not having an answer, I still think it is a good, or at least interesting, discussion to have. We regularly end up in discussions about forced grouping or PvP done right or welfare epics or whether or not simply buying a game entitles you to access all the content on your own terms, which all seem to stem from this same pool. Even the progression server idea, nostalgia or no, asserts that, while there might not be a "right" way to play, a definitive artistic vision, that there are alternative ways to present the same content.

    1. Yep, I didn't really get very close to addressing the actual question, particularly as it applies to playing MMOs, which is a pity because it's a really interesting one. If it does come up again in Blaugust (if we have a Blaugust this year) maybe I'll try and take it head on.

      I don't think there's any real way to answer it directly but it deserves a good deal of chewing over. William Goldman said of movie-makers "Nobody knows anything" and after almost twenty years in the book trade I am absolutely convinced the same applies to publishers so there seems to be no reason to assume games developers have any more of a clue about what works and what doesn't than any other part of the entertainment industry. My feeling is that players are at least as likely to push in directions that are in the interest of the long-term health of the game as developers but equally either side is just as likely to pull the whole thing off the rails.

      It's not as though there was just one position on each side, either. Azuriel's observation on how one senior dev could have changed the entire direction of the game purely by dint of seeing it through the lens of his own experience may seem like an extreme example but over the years I've seen plenty of major changes of emphasis and direction that could be put down to a single dev changing jobs. Players don't have that degree of individual agency but they have collective bargaining power on their side and I can think of a number of cases where it was used effectively.

      In the end these games are collaborative enterprises at least to some degree. MMORPGs are almost a form of performance art or perhaps an endless rehearsal for a play that never gets a public performance. My strong feeling is that the way they operate, from the always-on nature of the internet that seemed so amazing twenty years ago right through to the Early Access Crowdfunded Build Your Own Game and Pay Us For The Privilege phase we are enjoying right now is just a metaphor for a vast cultural change in Western (and a lot of Eastern) society that will make the 21st century as different from the 20th as the 20th was from the Middle Ages.

    2. "Players don't have that degree of individual agency but they have collective bargaining power on their side and I can think of a number of cases where it was used effectively."

      Okay I would normally just digest this whole conversation and form a reasonably thought-out post about it but this reference caught my eye and I have to bring it up now before I forget the connection.

      Bhagpuss expanded the question topic into art generally, but this reference made me wonder if there is not also a parallel with trade unions. After all, one can argue that an employer has the right to dictate their vision of how to do things, but employees are part of the process and should have some say in issues that affect them.


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