Reading the work of freelance critic Jonathan McCalmont is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Most of the time his writing taunts me to think more deeply about the art I enjoy but sometimes a bullet will emerge from his word gun and make me feel miserable for enjoying something like, say, A Trip to Italy.
I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.
I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.
By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.
Last year, Polish site AtariOnline.pl wrote about my Learning Curve trilogy on the rise and fall of an 80s game programming childhood. I didn't post about it at the time because it was supposed to be the first of a series; I provided them with copies of all my games as part of an archiving project. It's been a good year now with no sign of followup posts so I might as well post about it! You can visit the Polish original or a Google Translate version, which features the great line: "Persons who ruled Shakespeare speech, I strongly encourage to peek into the aforementioned articles on Electron Dance."
Anyway, I thought I'd throw in a few extra videos to sweeten the deal: a video of "the clone" of The Citadel, a shortened Eulogy and a fragment of a work-in-progress that was never completed.
Side by Side is a video series on local multiplayer games.
The first series finished a couple of months ago and I thought I'd take a moment to chat about improvements we're going to make in the second series. Spoiler: We considered giving every subscriber lots of money but got cold feet in the end.
Watch the video here or direct on YouTube.
Gregory Avery-Weir is the developer behind titles such as Looming and Ossuary and wrote the following essay about the role of Minecraft mods in defining what Minecraft is. I asked Avery-Weir if I could repost it here as I thought it was an interesting addendum to "The Minecraft Industrial Revolution."
I first played Minecraft in 2009 back when it was an Infiniminer clone being developed on the Tigsource forums. It was immediately clear to a bunch of people that it was something special but no one could have guessed what the game would become in just a few years. It may be the most popular game of all time. It’s definitely the most popular game among kids right now. Odd, then, that most of the Minecraft experience is about not playing Minecraft.
The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.
Why do I talk a lot about Greece on Twitter?
- Save the cheerleaders, save the world. When Greece was on the verge of defaulting a few years ago, instead of letting the creditor banks take the hit, the EU ran in to save them. But it was a broader assault than it might seem: saving Greece was also a way to neutralise a domino effect as Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy had similar problems. Bank exposure to these countries was reportedly around €1 trillion. Recently economist Ken Rogoff declared: “I believe that Ireland would have been far better off today if the Government had not taken over so much of the bank debt, and instead allowed bank creditors to absorb a significant loss.”
- The Parable of the Lazy Greek. So now private banks were off the hook and Greece had to face the ECB, IMF and EU instead (the “Troika”). The story of reckless lending was gradually replaced with the image of the Lazy Greek who had dined out in style on the backs of others, then refused to pay the money back. The Lazy Greek story has been sold so strongly that the German public, for example, would not support any government that agreed to go easy on Greece.
- The Parable of Austerity. There’s been a broad push since the financial crisis to rewrite the story of bank recklessness as governments spending beyond their means. This morphed into a political romance with austerity, the idea that governments must spend less right now. There is substantial evidence that inflicting austerity on a troubled economy makes things worse. In a nutshell, if the public feels insecure about the future and stops spending, then the government should fill that spending gap to help the economy recover. Austerity in times of strife is a vicious circle; if a government tries to save money, it damages the economy, which reduces tax receipts, thus undermining the whole exercise. Even the size of “fiscal multipliers” – which measure the impact that changes in government spending has on the economy (GDP) – has become a political football. The previous UK coalition government bolstered the case for austerity with research that showed that large government debt was economically destructive - but the data later turned out to be in error and showed no such thing. Further, the IMF just last week published a report arguing that Greece needs to be cut some slack and a good portion of its debt written off. After six years of austerity, Greece has lost a quarter of its GDP.
- Austerity victims show little solidarity. There is another reason why Europe does not want to give in to Greece: the political consequences elsewhere in Europe. Because other austerity victims have given in to pressure (such as increasing retirement ages), they want Greece to fall in line rather win a special deal. If Greece does win concessions from Europe, expect serious things to happen in Spain and Italy.
- Driving up Anti-EU sentiment. The fact that Europe is actively punishing a member state (particularly its poorest citizens) is not going unnoticed. The European Central Bank (ECB) offers support to avert a bank run with a programme called the ELA (Emergency Liquidity Assistance) but the ECB pulled the rug out last week, forcing Greece to close its banks. Last week Paul Mason wrote "The European Central Bank has proved, yet again, that it can crash an economy if it wants to." And today, the ECB turned up the heat some more. This is not the first time we've seen the ECB push buttons in this way, go back and visit Cyprus circa 2013. The contempt the EU has for some of its members is pumping up distrust of the European project. Consider this is happening at a time when the UK is going to hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership in the next couple of years.
- Russia. Some think if Greece leaves the euro it may seek assistance from Moscow which, considering tensions over interventions in Ukraine, has wider political implications. The US does not want to see Greece leave the Eurozone.
- Οχι. The referendum result rules out Greece signing up to the latest offer from the Troika. If it remains politically impossible for European governments to give ground, then Greece will likely default and leave the euro. This is why the Sunday referendum was labelled a referendum on euro membership.
- The euro becomes reversible. The EU has always described euro membership as irreversible and the ECB would “do anything it takes” to save the currency. If Greece leaves the euro – irrespective of the terrible economic damage that would inflict – it would be proof positive that these boasts are untrue. It would undermine the currency and eyes will once again scrutinise Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland which continue to struggle with debt burdens and austerity.
- A perfect storm. Everyone is talking down “contagion risk” – that Greece blowing up will hit markets hard – but that’s what politicians and central bankers do, they try to talk the market down from the ledge. But some fear that no one got to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 and that the real reckoning is still to come; that particular can was just kicked down the road. Greece leaving the euro at the same time that China is entering its own long-awaited financial crisis may ignite the touchpaper for a new global conflagration.
This is why I can't stop commenting on Greece. It's kind of huge.
This is an open comment thread if anyone wishes to discuss the subject of the June newsletter.
Here’s a one-word review of Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015): BUY.
But if you’ve already played it then hang around as I have a few more thoughts to share with you. While I love Her Story it does get away with a few things that a less accomplished game wouldn't be allowed to.
Total spoilers ahead. Get your Spoiler Hazmat Suit on and proceed with caution.
I’m not sure what we should learn from the closing of Tale of Tales, a studio that divided opinion like few others. It’s just one data point in the sea of indie but... an extremely atypical data point. That’s the reason a lot of people are upset on Twitter about this, because no one else was quite as Tale of Tales as Tale of Tales were.
Their fearlessness in speaking their mind about the state of videogames was both a boon and hindrance to their reach. Some found in them a kindred spirit, others saw a stream of pretentious artsbabble. The latter found them elitist and snobbish and, if there's one thing social media has taught me, no one buys into “hate the sinner, love the sin” when it comes to games; players find it difficult to approve your work as it seems to validate everything that comes out of your blasted mouth. But of course it's more than that, the work itself was just as divisive. Players could find their games frustrating or too inscrutable for their own good as the linked Let's Play demonstrates.
For my part, I think the ideas of “notgames” that ToT championed were prescient and eventually absorbed into a larger movement that believed “anything can be a game”. But could ToT turn their prescience into something that could pay the bills? With Belgian arts funding drying up and noting “several games with similarities to our own [had] been greatly successful”, they looked to their peers to see what they could do to become more accessible. I was sad at this admission, that they were now following others along the path instead of making The Path.
ToT were definitely an inspiration to studios like Frictional (Penumbra, Amnesia), The Astronauts (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) and many more. Certainly, developers will mourn their passing if, indeed, it is permanent, but not just because of the loss of talent you respect - it's yet another reminder of indie mortality.
Already, opinions are everywhere about what ToT should have done, shouldn’t have done, what this means about the industry. Maybe you think good riddance. Maybe you think this is terrible, the end is nigh. But I’m not sure if this story has a moral. Aside from making money in videogames is hard, The End.