An Exhausted Blogosphere

Last time we looked at the early period of the videogame blogosphere as Dan Golding’s blog post ‘Mapping the Brainysphere’ and I both saw it emerging, and we also looked at the forces of formation from an Actor Network Theory perspective. One of the things that ANT turns on its head is the idea of actor’s endurance – for Latour and his Actor Network Theory, it’s not change, decay or instability that is the phenomena in need of explaining, but instead it is endurance and stability of any actor or object that needs accounting for.

That said; let’s first look at the blogs from Dan Golding’s original list of 29 blogs and look at which ones have closed down. In other words, who has ‘left’ the blogosphere since Jan 1st, 2009?

Blogs from Mapping the Brainysphere that have either closed, abandoned or been semi-abandoned:

Graffiti Gamer
Elements of Meaning
Man Bytes Blog
Noble Carrots
The Autumnal City
Banana Pepper Martinis
Hit Self-Destruct
Versus Clu Clu Land
Game Culture Journal
The Game Critique
The New Gamer
Writers Cabal
Gamer Quest
8-bit Hacks
Ordinary Swords
Words on Play

More than half, in fact 21 of the 29 blogs Dan Golding identified in January of 2009 have been closed or effectively abandoned. With few exceptions these people have not gone away. Instead they’ve moved to twitter (and/or Facebook). Spencer Greenwood of Noble Carrots; Kirk Battles of Banana Pepper Martinis; The New Gamer writers; Sande Chen & Anne O’Toole of Writers Cabal; and the author of the GamesLaw blog are the only authors from this list to have left the blogosphere altogether. Most have merely migrated to one or other social media platform. More on that in a minute.

The above list, however, doesn’t include many of the other blogs which I would also include as important to the blogosphere at about the same time, and many of those blogs have closed down too. Here’s a second list of semi-abandoned or closed blogs, but of those that weren’t around or weren’t included in Dan Golding’s initial list:

Lyndon Warren’s Digital Kicks
Brilliam of Brill.iam Writes
Matthew Kaplan’s Game In Mind
DemonicMurry’s Graduate School Gamer
Chris Plante & co. HardCasual.Net
Manveer Heir’s Design Rampage
Michael Walbridge’s No More Gamers Anymore
Daniel Bullard-Bates and CT Hutt Press Pause to Reflect
David Sahlin Tracking the Nordic Ninja
Mike Schiller Unlimited Lives
Christopher Hyde’s 25timesasecond

All of these blogs have closed or been semi-abandoned. These two lists are hardly comprehensive, but it’s tempting to interpret the picture it paints as a bleak emptying of the blogosphere of some of its most talented contributors. But realistically, this is all quite natural and predictable. It takes considerable means and motivation to maintain a blog for multiple years and people change positions, careers and interests all the time. And yet, there seems to be another, hidden force at work behind this list – namely, twitter.

The first time I got an inkling that a change was taking place in the blogosphere, with the community mainly moving away from blogs and onto twitter,  was over a year ago. It was through a conversation that happened (where else) on twitter, initiated by Steve Gaynor. Gaynor, whose blog Fullbright closed just recently, tweeted to Michael Abbott a question about the state of the blogosphere. In reverse order, here is the series of tweets I uncovered from the vaults of twitter history that sparked the minor furore over the fate and direction of the critical videogame blogosphere.

The conversation that spun out from those few tweets happened as people saw the comments and variously agreed and disagreed, and discussed the factors influencing the blogosphere and its rate of production. It spun out into a multi-threaded conversation involving many twitter accounts, and it’s likely that no one was following all of them at once. Given the technical limitations of Twitter, reconstructing the whole of the conversation(s) is also a significant challenge.

One of the common themes that seemed to crop up in those discussions (and the subsequent discussions on the same topic that seem to flare up on twitter regularly) was that twitter seemed to have subsumed some of the role played by blogs in the early blogosphere. Most recently, Mitch Krpata tweeted at me on September 16th saying “Twitter is why nobody blogs anymore”. He was responding to a piece I wrote about the distasteful neologism ‘replayability’ and its crutch-like nature for games writers.

Mitch distilled the essence of my blog post into one tweet, and I was jokingly dismayed at his ability to do so. I tweeted, “Dammit Mitch, you just showed my post could have been a tweet.” And yet, it’s unlikely that a tweet would have provoked the same reaction from other blogs (including from Kotaku’s Steven Totillo and Game Theory Online’s Nadia Oxford) as the “Replayability is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!” blog post. The change from blogs to twitter is significant. Something is lost or changed or translated when writers move from blog comment threads to twitter. I’m sure Marshall McLuhan would have something to say about all of this.

One of the things that I think results from the move to twitter is exhaustion. In a post on his Insult Swordfighting blog, Mitch Krpata discusses his feeling of being out of sync with the rest of the reviewing consensus on the latest Castlevania game. At the end of the post he mentions finding one review comforting for its similarity to his own. The comments on that particular review were apparently “of the “no offense but you’re an idiot” variety” and according to Krpata, re-open the age-old question, “…of what a game review is supposed to be.” But wasn’t that an issue that was supposed to be settled once and for all by Sean Elliot and co. with his Symposium? Yet the symposium ran out of steam (exhaustion perhaps?), people have moved on and the question goes unresolved until it resurfaces once more with the recurrence of a problematic review or score. It’s a situation to make even Sisyphus proud.

Twitter has reshaped the critical videogame blogosphere, there’s no doubt about that. It’s affected the blogosphere by draining away discussions from the blog posts and comment threads of websites dedicated to hosting the kinds of discussion that was such a hallmark of the early community. It’s also changed the nature of those discussions, by fragmenting them and making them quite temporally fleeting. And lastly, perhaps most importantly, it’s done exactly what we wanted to have happen – it’s opened up the critical videogame blogosphere to just about anyone.

The old adage of ‘careful what you wish for’ applies here, as the cumulative effects of these three pressures has, for better or for worse, killed off much of the sense of a small, tight-knit community that existed in the ‘early days’ of the videogame blogosphere (and I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t a particularly diverse or representative community, but it was quite a close one).

I’ll end on a note of difference between blogs and twitter: One can still go back to posts on blogs from 08 or even 07 and look through the comment threads and that’s increasingly difficult on twitter. At the end of 2009 I attempted a personal archaeology of all the comments I left on the Brainy Gamer blog in 2007 and 2008, and the most interesting aspect of that exercise was realising that all the discussions are still there. Just take a look at the sheer length of comments on this blog post titled ‘We need new stories’ – the length of the comments thread exceeds that of  the post by a whole order of magnitude! That does not and cannot occur on twitter. And even if it did, who but those who were there at the time to see it would know about it? Twitter has been a double edged sword, but figuring out whether the benefits have outweighed the drawbacks is a chimerical task – perhaps even an impossible one. I’d still like to try and approach that goal, however, in my PhD.

A brief Actor Network Theory history of the videogame blogosphere

After a very productive meeting with my PhD supervisor today I want to try distil some of the renewed focus my project has gained.

My PhD project, tentatively called ‘An Actor Network Theory assessment of online community creation’, is all about the critical videogame blogosphere and how it came about.

There’s a bunch of assumptions already present in the title which Actor Network Theory will help me unpack – for starters a massive part of the ‘community’ is its shape and constitution. Who’s “in” and who’s “out”, and that process of contestation will be a big part of the analysis. Case in point – the phrase that was applied to a list of blogs that were all running at similar or related purposes was “The Brainysphere”. The true originator of the phrase is now lost to time and collective memory (I think it may have actually been a Roger Travis invention, and his alternative ‘the middle circle’ remains much more enduring), but it was first deployed with any serious impact by Dan Golding in his “Mapping the Brainysphere: 29 blogs switched-on gamers should read”.

That post, published on January 1st 2009 was part of a general zeitgeist concerned with making the community more accessible, and in particular, easier to find. That zeitgeist culminated, for me, in Critical Distance which has been (with a few notable exceptions) remarkably well received and an overwhelmingly positive development. Incidentally, those notable exceptions are extremely closely tied to the same issues that got Dan Golding and others into some hot water viz. the shape of the community based on the inclusion/exclusion of certain blogs, voices and perspectives from ‘The Brainysphere’. In fact, the word itself was banished from the vocabulary because it served to place (not entirely unfairly, but quite problematically) Michael Abbott and his blog ‘The Brainy Gamer’ at the centre of the videogame blogosphere.

This is all to say that my research project is a case study in applying Actor Network Theory to the videogame blogosphere, and I recently stumbled upon ‘A brief actor network theory history of speculative realism’ by Levi Bryant, a member of the Speculative Realism blogosphere. Now that particular rhizome of bloggers and the history of their formation, oddly enough, quite elegantly mirrors the story I have told above, with a diverse cast of actors deploying their time and effort in interesting and profitable ways. Bryant summarises the happy and unanticipated accidents that brought together the disparate group of bloggers under the umbrella term ‘Speculative Realism’, and it provides a great blueprint for my own (eventually much longer!) take on the formation of the critical videogame blogosphere.

Bryant also mentions in his brief history, a term used by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the tuche. Here’s Bryant explaining the concept:

Now, the tuche or missed encounter refers to the phenomenological structure of anticipation in our cognition. Tuche is that event that happens when one wasn’t anticipating or expecting it. It can be something like getting in a car accident, winning the lottery, meeting the love of your life, or being hit by lightning. The point is that it didn’t fit the structure of anticipation.

And weirdly enough, this idea seemed to have resonance with my previous posts on ‘the tenor of experience’. The tuche seems to fit the bill exactly for the initiating event that serves to kick off the process of an altered tenor of experience.

To put the concept into a practical example: a fortnight ago I very much had no anticipation of finding myself kissing a beautiful young woman, and it’s very tuche-ness threw my sense of regular experience for the following few days. The aftershocks, if you will, are still making themselves known even weeks later in minor and unanticipated ways. Mini-tuche events happening in sympathy to the original, or something like that.

Conversely, when Michael Abbott said in an IRC chat discussion back in early ‘09 “Ben, why don’t you make it happen” (referring to the creation of a website or aggregate portal site that organised and cemented the critical blogosphere, i.e. Critical Distance) I had already anticipated to a degree performing that kind of role. I had not, however, wanted to volunteer feeling as I did as though I were a bit of a minor player in the community.

That early insecurity probably played a big part in some of the early mistakes I made (and which I perhaps continue to make) but the technological environment of the internet itself also had a hand. There is no middle-ground to including or excluding a website in a blogroll or list of ‘must read’ articles – it either ‘makes the cut’ for relevance or it doesn’t, and that at times has placed an unbearable burden on my own judgement. I’m as fallible as anyone, and I’ve failed in that judgement before. I probably will again as I continue Critical Distance, but my failures are amplified by the nature of the technology. To use Latourian vocabulary, the technology is as much a formant of the blogosphere and its formation as I am. The inability for some to recognise that technology itself played a hand (or my inability to communicate this point at the time) caused me no end of grief, and serious personal anguish.

But that insight into the nature of the network that plays out between ‘people’ and ‘the internet’ is what’s driving my PhD project, so I should also be extremely thankful. My PhD research has already taken me to some wonderfully interesting places and I hope that insight or intuition or hypothesis continues to act as such an exemplary guide in future.

Addendum to The Tenor of Experience

Two quick links both worth reading for their applicability to my previous idea of the tenor of experience: the first, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland ‘A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years‘. Too many points to mention them all here, but the list is deeply unsettling and perhaps suggests that our collective tenor of experience is going to continue pitch-shifting upwards into a higher register as we get further and further into the future.

Interestingly, my comments when linking this piece on Facebook were quite reflexive, both commenting on my embrace of “the radical contradictions that will be necessary in our beautiful future-topia” and noting that my linking embodied “the principles of points number 10, 17 and 37”.

Speaking of Facebook, this brings us to the second piece worth reading: an interview with the always interesting Geert Lovink. There’s a strange push-pull dynamic in much of Lovink’s interviews and writing. It’s like he’s aware of the techno-determinist discourse that so often infects new media (or Net Critique as his blog says) talk, especially from the silicon valley, tech startup types, and yet he can’t seem to resist falling into some of it’s tendencies. There’s a certain teleology in the following excerpt that I can’t help but wonder about:

…we have seen the development from to the stand-alone WordPress, and now we’re back again with the centralized, easy-to-use Tumblr platform. These things go back and forth. The next wave will be decentralized Twitter services. So what?

So what, indeed. How, as the budding Latourian social theorist that I am, can I interpret Lovink’s interview? Is he privvy to some secret of a new “decentralized twitter” version in development at TwitHQ? And even if so, how can he reasonably say what will happen when the several million users of Twitter are presented with the choice to move toward some kind of distributed twitter?

And yet Loving is as much an actor in the field as anyone else, so it’s possible his own efforts can do more work in terms of constructing the future of the net than would happen if he said nothing of the sort. But the whole network of associations is much, much larger than even the reasonably influential Lovink’s circle of influence extends, so he leaves himself open to the possibility of being mistaken about the future “decentralized Twitter”.

Then again, when he is proven “right” perhaps he stands to gain more than he would lose! If correct, his status as internet “guru” is reinforced, and always open is the possibility of having one’s earlier mistaken predictions forgotten about (or argued out of).

To return to the tenor of experience, Lovink’s interview is a kind of ambivalent, equivocating  rumination on the future of the social network – and the role of social networks in altering the tenor of experience (see Coupland’s piece and point #10 about being unable to “go back” to a state of lesser connectedness) is extremely important.

The tenor of experience is not just determined by extraordinary events, but by the shape and texture of day to day happenings. Coupland again with his point #29 – “You will have more say in how long or short you wish your life to feel”.

Time perception is very much about how you sequence your activities, how many activities you layer overtop of others, and the types of gaps, if any, you leave in between activities.

That seems like a very apt point, and one I’ve been considering ever since starting my PhD research (it’s a grain of a thought present in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”). Right now I’m typing this, listening to some very excellent electronica on the radio and hearing the sounds of my housemate and his girlfriend playing Bomberman in the loungeroom. And that’s before accounting for the process of thinking as an activity in itself.

Anyone interested in exploring the change of tenor that less layers of activity brings? I’m going to suggest listening to some music and doing nothing else, for starters. Close your eyes if it helps you avoid distraction (it helps me).

The Tenor of Experience

I’ve had a kind of crazy idea for a while now that involves the nature of experience. I’m now quite convinced that experiences come in different varieties and flavours.

Everyone has taken mind (or mood) altering drugs of some kind – caffeine is in just about everything, after all – so we’re reasonably familiar with the concept of being ‘under the influence’. And when things start feeling out of the ordinary, most rational people generally think that something about us has changed, either in our perceptions, our brain chemistry, we’ve gone a bit lunatic or whathaveyou.

But what if the change is not in ourselves but in the actual compositions of the things that make up the experiences we have? I am calling this the ‘tenor’ of experience, and every so often I find myself in circumstances that are so far beyond the expected or the imagined that they have an entirely foreign tenor to them.

The tenor of experience is like a strange new taste in your mouth. It’s like a melody you’ve never heard before that is at once shocking in its familiarity and in its newness. The tenor of experience is the inability to trust your own eyes. The tenor of experience is dream-logic in the real world. The tenor of experience is moonlight flashing off bare skin. The tenor of experience is a touch; it’s a place, and a smell – it’s all of these and more, all at once.

My choice of the word ‘tenor’ here is deliberate, and I think appropriate for the musical connotations it brings. The ‘tenor of experience’ comes with suggestions of shifting into a higher register – if not heightened awareness, then some kind of higher aspect. Music often plays a part in altering the tenor of experience (I find it does) and while brain neuroscience might be able to account for these effects, the science speaks little beyond the conglomeration of effects.

Nothing in my theory of the tenor of experience is to discount the very real effects of mind altered states, but more and more often I’m finding it insufficient to blame these ‘effects’ for the whole range of experience that an altered tenor of experience presents with. As I’m becoming more familiar with Latourian metaphysics and Actor Network Theory the less appealing I am finding the reductive, effect-based answers like ‘it’s just the alcohol talking’ etcetera.

Nothing endures. Everything becomes translated. Beer in the glass becomes translated when it cools, and is translated when it later becomes beer-in-the-stomach. The translation process means nothing is kept in-tact. Nothing endures. Therefore, looking at the end result and pointing to it as the be-all-and-end-all is a bit like looking at a calculus equation before and after integration. You can integrate the equation back to a pre-translated state but you have no access to that intangible ‘constant’ that was lost in the translation process. So I want to step back outside and look at the whole tenor of experience.

If this all comes across a little confused it’s because I’m still feeling the effects of a terrifically altered tenor of experience (involving no illegal drugs, fyi) and writing down this idea is a strategy I am employing in response. If you’ve found anything here at all persuasive, I encourage you to keep the idea of the tenor of experience in mind, see if it’s at all useful in future and let me know. It’s certainly has been useful for me.

Post-script: I just performed a quick google search for the phrase and I’ve clearly not coined an entirely unique one, but I hope my meaning and use of the phrase is ultimately an outstanding one.

Zombies and Hip Hop

When I first saw this trailer for Hilltop Hood’s upcoming DVD release Parade of the Dead I wondered why no one had thought to do something like it sooner. The video seems to be a spoof of the zombie film genre that also functions as a DVD collection of music videos for the Hilltop Hoods songs. It’s an inspired idea, even if the  cross-over between hip hop and zombie films is not completely self evident at first glance. Hip hop and zombie films, I am here to tell you, actually often address quite similar themes.

It’s a reasonably well accepted fact that many Zombie films are meant as subtle (or not so-subtle) critiques of the mindless state of modern urban living. The empty streets of 28 Days Later and the lone figure within them act as a visual metaphor for social isolation and alienation, themes often explicitly addressed in hip hop. The chorus of Sydney hip hop collective The Herd’s song “State of Transit” touches on the impersonal nature of the daily commute:

Same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
You got no time to chit chat, you’ve got a schedule to keep
Shooting straight across the city and your’re dodging the sheep
It’s the same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
One more 24 hour stretch from daylight to dusk and dusk down to desk

In zombie films, we are shown the worst traits in  people and it’s a truism of the genre that at some point friends and travelling companions will turn each other in order to save themselves. The line that ends up on many T-Shirts and stickers notes pithily that, “I don’t have to outrun them; I just have to outrun you”.

The nihilism that often results from the post-zombie-apocalypse world – where the changed-up rhythms of life often drive one to distraction, or worse – can provide the impetus for the kind of brazen egotism we see in zombie films. We often see characters blowing off steam by destroying or damaging things, and watch as they try and come to terms with their new position near-top-of-the-world in the social order (this is by virtue of the fact that there often is no social order anymore). This ‘King of the World’ mentality is one that also finds a foothold in much hip hop culture and music.

It hardly needs demonstrating, but the Sydney group ‘Horrorshow’ tap into this kind of triumphalist egotism in the opening track ‘Uplift’ from 2008’s The Grey Space. It is tempered, however, with a series of sad admissions of weakness and the track is peppered throughout with this duality of egotism and humility. It’s like Solo can’t decide if he’s happy or terrified with his new position as King of the World:

Welcome to the manifesto of a man who stood the test of time…
…In this cold barren land that I call home I’m just a man searching for the strength to walk alone…
…I’m a national icon in the making here to get my vibe on…

The Hilltop Hoods have a song called ‘Fifty in Five’ off the same State of the Art album from which the track at start was taken. It also deals with apocalyptic themes, covering the through-line of horror and atrocity that spattered the latter half of the twentieth century:

Generation X and generation Y,
And the generation next will degenerate and die,
Cause we got holes in the ozone that we put there ourselves,
Now the poles are a no-go, earths cooking itself…

The anger and activism often expressed in hip hop (and Aussie hip hop in particular) is what initially drew me to the genre. The Herd were my first experience with any kind of political engagement that had a strong sense of justice – of right and wrong – which may in fact help explain it’s attractiveness. For a generation of young materialists who have grown up in the shadow of post-modernity and the politics of spin, this kind of certainty around injustices is exactly what we needed. The Herd’s 77% remains the epitome of this angry revolutionary ideal.

Hip hop has a long tradition of sampling from films, which makes the strange Sean of the Dead-like pairing of the Hood’s music and a zombie apocalypse further comprehensible. The DVD, clearly based on their one song ‘Parade of the Dead’ off the State of the Art album, demonstrates in the chorus many of the themes mentioned above. And it should be noted that the setting of the song as implied in the chorus makes the zombies-as-social-critique even more pertinent, with it’s overtones of poor city planning:

They built my city on top of a grave
Now the dead roam the street like a rotting parade
They poured gasoline on top of a lake
And then they set it on fire so nobody escaped

The last section of the final verse leads into the refrain from the bridge section, setting the scene for the reappropriation of the ‘heads shoulders knees and toes’ children’s song. The image seems straight out of the Dawn of the Dead remake where a pair of chainsaw-equipped busses is driven through a crowd of zombies.

…And just for the fun of it, I stole my neighbour’s Hummer
Put spikes out the side and tied a chainsaw to the front of it

I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes
I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes

I’ll conclude with this stunning video tribute to zombie films, set to The Hilltop Hoods ‘Parade of the Dead’. You can’t help but wonder if this video itself didn’t half inspire the upcoming DVD.