Art that is walled off, dies.
This may seem like a weird and rather harsh sentiment to kick off a post in this normally sunny blog, but bear with me, I’ll explain. I was recently involved in a discussion about larp and cultural exchange where I was told, explicitly and with no apparent irony, that certain groups were “not allowed” to use rules and design principles developed by a particular group, because they did not respect the originating group’s design culture and overall artistic mission. Essentially, the argument went, these ideas had been developed by artists who didn’t want them used for commercial purposes, and that by doing so, these other groups were “destroying” the original art form.
So, let me unpack the few truths and many errors in this philosophy.
Let’s start with the truths. First of all, as an English professor with a historicist take on literature, I happen to agree with the notion that it’s important to understand the culture that created a particular work of art, and especially the context for an entire art form or movement. Art does not exist in a vacuum, after all – it is the work of living artists and as such reflects the zeitgeist they create in, not to mention various personal quirks, interests, passions, and foibles. If you think an art form is great enough to adopt and/or imitate, it seems reasonable to expect that it’s great enough to research a bit too, especially if you have more than just a passing interest in it. No one says you have to drop everything and research the origins of EDM if you like one song, for example but if you plan on playing it at parties professionally or even making the music yourself, you might want to look into its roots, movements, etc.
This leads to another truth in that statement – when you understand a culture, you also can recognize areas that may not translate (literally or figuratively) very well to your own. For example, the innovative Ars amandi method developed in Europe for incorporating non-sexual touch as a way of expressing sexual and physical intimacy in larp does not always play well with American legal and social mores, which are often extremely touch averse. (I know, it’s pretty messed up that Americans are cool about hitting each other with foam swords and yelling “DECAPITATE” but not that someone might consensually touch their forearms with their bare hands to indicate romantic closeness. Damn Puritans, still fucking everything up.) It’s not that Americans are incapable of learning and properly applying the method, it’s just that doing so will take some extra adjustment and consideration for both players and facilitators because it’s far outside the larp norms of this particular gaming culture. So, again, research is your friend in a situation like this.
Those are two very good and important items, but that’s about where the applicable truths run out, because now we run into questions of ownership.
Nobody owns art forms, not in the macro sense. While individual artists should be credited for their creations and their specific work not plagiarized – and yes, that has happened in the larp discussion before, and no, it’s not OK to just take design philosophies and pass them off as your own – in the larger sense art doesn’t belong to anyone, at least not in a prohibitive context. Art belongs to everyone who participates in it, for better or worse. Attempting to gatekeep it and tell people “you can’t do that” is bound for failure, because that’s just not how art works. Sometimes we wish art could be locked down a bit, if only to make sure that artists receive their due – looking at you, white American musicians who stole rock ‘n roll, got rich, and largely didn’t give any credit to the African American blues and early rock artists who actually started the genre – but sadly it’s just not the case, even when it maybe might be better that way. We can and should try to do better than those early days of rock’n’roll, for the record, but still, art doesn’t like to stay in boxes and it definitely doesn’t like to be fenced in.
Art goes where it goes, and by and large we’re all better for it.
That’s where the idea of “you can’t use these rules” really runs off the rails. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that every member of an entire creative community agrees with the notions that 1) their design principles are being misused, and 2) that the solution is that others outside their group should not use them. That’s a tall order for agreement, given the often contrary nature of creatives, but it’s certainly not impossible, so let’s go with it. Let me be clear – it’s not that such a community can’t be upset if they believe things they created are being used in ways they find run counter to their design ideals. They certainly can be, and expressing that is natural – it’s another reason I think people should research new ideas and movements when they encounter them. No, where it breaks down is the “can’t” part of that response.
On a basic level, well, telling a creative community – any creative community – that they can’t do something pretty much guarantees a bunch of them will, if only just to spite you. Artists are funny that way. But even beyond a basic, knee-jerk reaction, it’s actually really important that they do so, because otherwise you set some pretty dangerous precedents for art – namely, that a particular style or genre of art “belongs” to a specific group of artists, and furthermore that those artists have the right and authority to exclude others from practicing the same type of art they create.
As an experiment, imagine that Picasso, on creating cubism – yes art history folks, I know it’s more complex than that and that actually helps my case, but bear with me here – told everyone that they were free to enjoy cubist art. However, they could not create any themselves unless they too lived in Paris at the same time he did and shared his cultural and philosophical context. It would not only be monumentally egotistical to say so, but such a declaration would be bound to failure from the start.
Now, would it be fair to say that understanding the origins of cubism and especially Picasso’s take on it would require understanding their specific cultural context? Absolutely. Should you maybe look into the origins of the movement and its principles if you intend to apply it to your own work? I’d strongly recommend it, if only to give credit where it’s due and make sure you’re not making mistakes that have already been addressed. But do you need to share all those exact to apply the techniques of cubism to your own art? No. And that’s where the idea of ownership of larp concepts breaks down.
Let’s say I coined a design term – call it “playground larp.” I define it as larps which avoid both simulationist realism and narrativist abstraction, instead using simple games and child-like activities to resolve conflicts and dictate outcomes in the story. As an example of a pioneering playground larp, I cite Brennan Taylor’s ongoing Bulldogs! sci-fi larps, which use activities like tossing rubber balls at stacks of Solo cups to simulate knocking down enemy shields and keeping a ball bearing in the center of a painted circle on an unpredictably tilting frisbee to determine if a ship avoids dangerous asteroid collisions. I acknowledge that neither Brennan nor I invented the use of such activities in larp, but write a design manifesto which centers these elements in ways that have not been previously explored, and outlines a new vision for playground larp as an expanding movement. I present this at larp conferences and publish it in larp journals, and I make it clear that I believe playground larp should never be run for profit, as that diminishes the essential DIY nature and childlike wonder of the experience.
With all that said, can I tell people that they cannot create playground larps unless they’re from the same background as Brennan and me, and share our design principles? No. Those ideas are out there now, ricocheting in pinball fashion throughout the larp community, and I cannot control them even if I wanted to. Even if a few years later I see a huge blockbuster larp that heavily incorporates playground design principles – it’s set at a carnival, and so lots of situations are actually resolved by playing various carnival games – and charging $1500/head, I can’t say to them “you can’t do that.” I may wish they wouldn’t, because it’s not what I had in mind when I wrote up the playground design manifesto, but that’s as far as it goes.
This also touches on another important problem with the ownership issue – the folly of tracing origins as a gatekeeping method. As previously noted, art is not created in a vacuum, and larp is certainly no exception. Attempting to claim ownership of a part of it because you “created” it only leads to others to say that without their work, you could have never created yours, and so you actually owe them. Whereupon yet another person steps up and says that their contribution to the field is even older and therefore both of those people owe them, and so on, and so on, and so on. I’m not saying that nobody has original ideas, mind you. Going back to Picasso, I can certainly give him credit for helping invent a new style of painting. However, if he claimed that other painters could not use his ideas to inspire their own techniques, I’d call foul. Trying to establish that sort of ownership authority in art world gets ugly and reductivist, fast, and anyway it misses the entire point of art.
As Steve-o wisely put it in SLC Punk, when discussing the ongoing European/American argument about who “started” punk rock: “Was it the Sex Pistols in England? The Ramones and the Velvet Undergound in New York? ‘Sex Pistols!’ ‘Ramones!’ Ahhhhh! WHO CARES WHO STARTED IT?!?! IT’S MUSIC.” The idea being that enjoying it is way, way more important than quibbling over ownership.
There’s also the problem of asserting ownership in that it assumes there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways to apply artistic techniques, which is rarely if ever true. (Appropriate is an important question, as is appropriation, but those are matters for another time.) Mainly because this sort of outlook assumes that, once created, a design principle or rules system must remain in its original state or it is being “corrupted” somehow. Which is also a very limited and frankly very unhealthy view of art. Is Dada a “corruption” of cubism, for example, because it arose in response to those techniques? Or is it simply part of the ongoing discussion that is art?
I’ll just say it: There are no platonic artistic forms.
So let’s be clear: It is important to research and understand where the art that inspires you comes from, because art exists in part as a response to its environment, and also because some elements may not be easy to translate into other settings due to their origins in a specific context. It can also be important to think about who makes the art that you love, because their perspective can have a profound impact on understanding their work; even if you ultimately do not agree with them as artists or even as individuals, you at least can do so from a position of knowledge. And simply put, it is important to give people their due credit for blazing trails and changing perspectives – we already have far too many historical examples of artists being ignored, glossed over, and otherwise marginalized by other artists, especially when it comes to commercial success. Don’t add to that list if you can help it.
That said, it is equally important to understand that art is not a gated community, and that telling people “you can’t” is rather correctly doomed to fail as a result. Once art is out there, it is out there, and others will use it, adapt it, reject it, and otherwise create in response to it as they see fit. You may, of course, keep as true to your own original community and ideals as you like, and that’s fine. You cannot, however, expect the rest of the artists in your medium to adhere to those same standards simply because you do, and even if you could, the result would weaken the medium, not strengthen it. Art is not a ship in a bottle, it’s a ship at sea, and while you can plot courses and hold that wheel tight you still never know exactly how those winds will blow or precisely where those currents will carry you.
In conclusion: Players, game runners – do your homework, give credit. Designers – understand that once your work is out there, you can’t dictate how it’s used. And most importantly, because it often gets forgotten in this debate, everyone –
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!
Don’t be a hardcore fan, be a big one.
Why not? Hardcore fans almost always end up ruining their enjoyment of what they profess to adore, while “merely” big fans go on their merry way, still finding new things to enjoy and explore about what they love for years at a time. Today’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer release has given me ample evidence of this notion, because while we big fans of Star Wars are debating the pros and cons of what we’ve seen (and what’s been left out), the hardcore fan response has been pretty much the same. It’s either a rapturous, no-room-for-discussion “IT IS STAR WARS SO IT WILL BE AMAZING ALL WHO DOUBT IT ARE WRONG”, or more often a close-minded rejection of the very notion that anything could possibly be as good as the sainted Holy Trinity, usually accompanied by some tired lens flare jokes and the obligatory “stop ruining my childhood” screed. Which highlights an important difference in how you, as a fan, approach what you love:
Being a big fan is a statement of enjoyment; being a hardcore one is a statement of identity.
The difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is pretty immense. If you enjoy something, but it doesn’t define how you see yourself as an individual, then that enjoyment is capable of expanding and changing over time as you find new examples of what you like and new ways to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you automatically find every new thing in your fandom wonderful and great – I’m a big fan of Star Wars, for example, and still didn’t enjoy all the movies, let alone all the novels, games, and other tie-ins – but you are able to put the negative experiences in perspective with the positive ones.
To put it another way, I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit when they’ve played a bad game (or season), or that I’ve decided the 1997 team was the single best Eagles team ever+ and that no current or future Eagles team could possibly be better. A big fan takes it as it comes, enjoying some things and not others, but always with an overall appreciation of what they love in mind. They recognize that Godfather III doesn’t “ruin” Godfather I & II, and that when you think about it, the very notion that it could is pretty absurd.
By contrast, when you’re hardcore to the point that you tag something as being part of your identity, whether it’s your Star Wars fandom or your love of a sports team or whatever, you become very resistant to the idea of anything about that subject changing. Because changing it now changes you, and as a rule, human beings are highly resistant to making alterations to our sense of identity. So a hardcore fan inevitably draws inward, becoming either fanatically positive about their fandom to the point of blindness and instant (often harsh) rebuke of the very notion that it could be in any way bad, or bitter and resentful about any new material to come after whatever arbitrary point they’ve decided was the “height” of what they love. They become gatekeepers, protecting “their” fandom from everyone they see as harmful to it, including other fans and even creators if they feel they have strayed from the “true” nature of the fandom.
As you can imagine, neither perspective is ultimately very conducive to continued enjoyment of what a fan claims to love, because either way you’re locked into a perspective that ultimately stifles your ability to appreciate the subject of your affection. You either won’t ever critique it and can’t accept the notion that others will, or you’ll ruthlessly critique every possible aspect of new material to the point where you’re incapable of enjoying any of it. Instead of a source of enjoyment in your life, your fandom becomes a subject to obsess over in a negative way, either because it requires you to block out and shut down any criticism you come across or because any news about it prompts a bitter tirade about how it’s been going downhill since whatever time you decided it had reached a suitable zenith.
No matter what, the hardcore fan always loses.
One particularly relevant case in point is the familiar “stop ruining my childhood” refrain that has been heard in a lot of fandoms but seems to hold a special place in the hearts of certain hardcore Star Wars fans. This is like complaining that, because they built a 7-11 where your own playground used to be, your cherished memories of playing in that park as a kid are now ruined forever. Stop and think about that a moment, because it’s both silly and a little terrifying to have that kind of view of your own identity, your own personal timeline.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to like that they built the 7-11, much less that Lucas inserted a bunch of pointless crap no one asked for in his classic films. As I said before, being a big fan doesn’t mean you can’t critique or respond negatively to things in your fandom, any more than you can’t feel a sense of loss to see something you cherished replaced by something coldly commercial. Those are perfectly normal and logical reactions, but they’re still placed within a context, a perspective – I don’t like that there’s a 7-11 there now, or that the re-releases now have pointlessly awful Jabba the Hutt CGI, but it won’t stop me from enjoying telling stories about playing in the park with my friends, or remembering all the many times I watched the original movies and had a blast.
What I’m saying is that if those sorts of things really do retroactively ruin your past – as in actually make you incapable of feeling any or all of the happiness you used to feel when you recollected those times from your past – you need to take a big step back and really separate your identity from your fandom. Because you’re clearly locked in a relationship with it that is bad for both of you. Seriously. Think about it.
Big fans? Always. Let’s spread our love of Star Wars – or Game of Thrones, or Doctor Who, or whatever else – to others and enjoy the ups and downs of following a creative property over the years.
Hardcore fans, though? Let’s let that notion go.
+Said no one ever, including me, so calm down everyone.
Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.
For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:
The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.
OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:
WARNING! WARNING! HUGE
HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.
Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.
And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.
In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.
I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.
There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.
In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.
And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.
Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.
When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.
For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.
The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.
But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.