Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If the Play's the Thing...

My friend Roger Whitson pinged me early on Twitter yesterday and directed me to a post by Mark Sample on Play the Past: What Comes before the Platform: The Refuse of Video Games. It's a good article and makes some very salient points about a side of gaming that people don't want to talk about, what Sample sums up as "Pre-Platform Studies:" what goes into making the things that play the games we play?

Specifically Sample's talking about the long lines of supply that go into producing the raw materials that are fed into the factories that are made by workers into things they will never personally be able to afford. It's a tale of slavery, coercion, warlords, organized crime, exploitation, and Western consumer ignorance. Go read it - it's a good post and hits the points better than I could myself.

If you don't feel some measure of guilt over this, you should.

Something bothered me after reading Sample's post though, and (like any good netizen) I turned to Twitter to discuss it with @rogerwhitson. Why did Sample pick on video games specifically? Why is it so important to video game studies that we include the amount exploitation that pervades the supply chain? Does it actually matter to the study of the game itself? Shouldn't we then study the deforestation and supply process that goes into the creation of books (I asked Roger)?

Our discussion went off on a tangent about the importance of the influence of capitalism (Rog's label, not mine, although he later admitted it was shorthand for what I referred to as a technologically advanced society. After all, the Soviets weren't exactly known for their Earth-friendly or nonexploitive labor practices, and they built video arcades too.) Sidenote to readers: don't use "capitalism" as a synonym or shorthand for "technologically advanced society." It's wrong on several levels.

That's more like it.

What we came back to in our conversation was that Sample's point was most definitely important: people don't really know about the awful things that go into making the things upon which we play our games, and that should be part of the conversation. But at what level?

Let's start with a few statements and assumptions.

1. Is platform important to video game studies? Yes, absolutely. "Platform" covers the hardware you use to play the game, which includes graphic and sound capabilities and input: two important overall aspects of the gaming experience. It also includes lesser-important things like media (although load times do affect the game experience) and multiplayer capabilities and experiences. So yes, it's important.

2. Is platform important to other studies? Well... sort of. Is a book on Kindle fundamentally different from a book on paper, to the point where it would change the overall experience? If so, the difference is more of an Xbox 360 vs. PS3 instead of an Xbox 360 vs. Atari 2600 argument: in other words, relatively insignifiant.

But what about, say, music? Listening to a recording done on a home casette recorder is significantly different from listening to a recording done with professional recording equipment. So too is listening to both recordings on a tinny mono speaker instead of a high-end audiophile system. The experience changes both ways, therefore the platform does influence the study.

Movies are the same way. A film shot on an 8mm handheld is vastly different from a film recorded with DV and postprocessed on massive server farms to add CGI to every frame. Watching them is a different experience on a small black and white TV than on a 9-story IMAX screen.

John, stop the car, Ringo's got out again.

I realize I'm talking in degrees here, but if anything I'm searching for larger context in the overall conversation to answer my previous question. I left the conversation with Roger yesterday and took the dog for a walk (a sure way to clear my head if ever there was one), and came back and Tweeted that the thing that bothered me about Sample's article was that he didn't offer solutions. Actually, I was wrong. He did offer solutions: the importance of including the Pre-Platform studies in video game studies.

Creeping a bit (because that's how I roll) I saw an earlier conversation Sample had with one of his followers about the book question, and both of them mentioned books that are (I'm paraphrasing) ethically created - not printed in countries where they would deforest land for pulp, or mistreat workers in the paper mills.

That's where I left things last night.

This morning I realized perhaps the best comparison to what Sample was proposing wasn't from another art form at all, but instead from the food industry.

Pre-Platform Food? How about ethically sourced, local, and/or organic food? Chances are, thanks in no small part to the rise of the online foodie movement and the ease of access to films like Super Size Me or Food, Inc., you're at least aware of these options as being healthier for you as well as better for local producers and the environment. You're probably not calculating the carbon footprint of every meal you consume (although if you are, bully for you!), but there is a much higher level of awareness around these things at the consumer level.

Waggle Wiimote to pick locally-sourced food.

But this isn't just a movement at the consumer level: chefs prefer these sorts of ingredients when they're creating food. Case in point: local Seattle chef Becky Selengut's book Good Fish, which is as much about seafood preparation as it is about the ethics around the seafood supply chain: an issue around which there are as many moral problems for Western societies as the consumer electronics supply chain.

And that is the crux of my reply to Mark Sample: Pre-Platform Studies should be part of conversations around not just video games, but any artform that ties so closely into supply chains. Where DOES that paper come from that your novel is printed on? Aren't there just as many third-world miners, raw materials, factories, and exploited workers in the sound system I'm listening to, the Kindle I'm reading on, the television I'm watching, the cameras and computers that went into producing Avatar as there are in games?

To rephrase as a statement rather than a question: this isn't just about video games, and it's frankly a larger conversation that just video game studies. It is (marketing hat on) a consumer awareness and perception issue that goes way beyond video games. As a technologically advanced society we become increasingly reliant on things from which we are further and further divorced, whether it's our phones, TVs, Xboxes, cars, food, or even the houses we live in or the places we work and play. I'll admit, as savvy as I'd like to think I am about such things, I have no clue about how most of the stuff I use is made. Even the table I'm typing this on was made in India, and I can only imagine the state of the furniture factory that created it or the processes that went into harvesting the trees - and my imagination is not good.

I don't want to think about the exploitation it took to create these pixels.
This is what I was looking for in Sample's blog post, because it is a broad and extremely important consumer issue in an increasingly global society. It's not like we can all whip out our local Shaker-made iPhones and connect to the Organic Locally Sourced Cellphone Network. At least, not yet. It is good to have goals after all.

So the conversation Sample's proposing seems to me less of one central to video game studies, and more of one central to overall consumer awareness and the impact of a technologically advanced society such as ours. There are indeed a lot of conversations to be had about exploitation at all levels of the games industry, from the aforementioned supply lines to the more First World Problems around game companies overworking staff members around launch and then firing them shortly thereafter.

Video game screenshot of the awful working conditions at a fictional video game company. Meta as fuck.

But whether this is integral to the study of the game itself is another story. I'm coming down on the side of "not really," for the same reason that the context of the paper the first edition Moby Dick was printed on isn't integral to the study of Moby Dick, or the way that the oil that powers a sports car isn't important to the performance of the car itself on a test course. Which takes away nothing from the broader point that this is a very important issue. It just strikes me as a consumer ignorance and awareness issue rather than a critical one.

1 comment:

Roger Whitson said...

Hi Jason,

Interesting post. My response would be two-fold:

1. Yes, you are correct that the thing Sample criticized in his post is connected to a larger issue. But I guess I don't understand why having a targeted discussion that is also connected to a larger issue isn't appropriate. People do talk about the paper that the first edition of Moby Dick is printed on or, especially, the kind of ink Blake used when making his books. Platform studies, in fact, emerged as a kind of analogue to material studies and history of the book studies - which looked at the ways, historically and materially, books were produced. Further, Mark is speaking to a video games studies audience, so, it does have relevance in that specific context.

2. I did use capitalism as a convenient shorthand for a complex problem. However, I was also employing a pretty basic argument about commodity fetishism that Marx uses in the first book of Das Kapital - mainly that the whole point of a commodity is that it makes invisible its means of production. Now, the commodity isn't unique to capitalism - and perhaps that's where my analysis was too simplistic. Then again, who's to say that capitalism is limited to specific states, or that global capitalism doesn't also exist in communist states.

Anyway, I do appreciate the conversation, and I think your idea that we need to have a broader discussion of the places where our stuff comes from is quite accurate. I also felt that the comparison between Sample's argument and the foodie movement is quite apt. But I would suggest that a foodie movement for video games is needed. Designers and independent developers who won't use materials and distribution models that are oppressive. Does this mean I'll give up my Mac? I don't know, but I think these kinds of conversations should happen.