Home > Writing Portfolio > NO WINNERS, NO ENDS — Why have a writing jam?

Posted by: Em | FEB-18-2018

It is amazing to me that at final count, the Manifesto Jam received 121 submissions from game makers, writers, academics, curators, and many who cross these basic categories or don’t see themselves as any of them. Further, I am happy to announce that there will be no winners, no prizes, ratings will not be pored over, there will be no best of, and no voting. If you took the time to write or make something about your ideas during the jam, or even if the jam inspired you to do something afterwards, congratulations!

Last year I organized the Visual Essay Jam both in tribute to master visual essayist John Berger but also out of a bit of dissatisfaction with both the jam format and the relationship writing or other forms of critical response have to videogames. I wanted to see if we could expand both who felt qualified to make arguments about games, and how these arguments can be put forth. Presenting your arguments visually takes a lot of the pressure around writing “well” away, and also requires you to pay attention to different visual details than more narrative approaches. For that jam, we made 25 entries, and in my round up post about it I tried to write at least a sentence about every one.

In this case, it’s just not practical. I’m still working through all of the submissions, and trying to address or categorize them all would lead to an enormous roundup, or leave out some, highlighting others. Instead I would rather speak in more general terms about what I saw coming out of the jam, how it grew and even split from my original vision, and hopefully encourage exploring and discussing the entries on your own.

Why manifestos?

Manifestos are primarily a Modernist form, most associated with art movements during the first two thirds or so of the 20th century. Many contemporary artists that call on them nowadays usually do so as a sort of regressive gesture (to reign in art world trends that need to be more like “the good old days”) or with a bit of irony. Can manifestos still have the power and ability to energize creation and define how a movement will be historicized like the Dada and Surrealist manifestos did? If they still do, which we will see in what follows the jam, it almost certainly won’t be in the same way, because we’re in vastly different times.

Even if things are no longer so straightforward, there are some things about the manifesto “format,” if it can be reduced in that way, encourages a confluence of useful elements. It throws caution to the wind and gets to the point. It is not a measured response but a desperate identification of a problem and/or proposal of a solution. Finally, it wields language, it must be poetic, make an appeal, and grab your attention; the best manifestos are a blitz of style and substance, like the simultaneously evocative, elegant, and straightforward language of the Communist Manifesto.

(Aside: Even at the highest level of complexity, I still think the best academic writing and critical theory connects to these roots, is aesthetically inspiring, imaginative and nourishing alongside conveying its “content!”)

It’s worth noting that this was a jam a lot of people participated in, many who would not consider themselves writers, even though it is a writing jam. I would have been thrilled if there were around 20–30 participants again like last year, but the jam took off in totally unexpected ways. I think it had a confluence of elements that differ from most jam prompts which appealed to a lot of people, so not only did a lot of people sign on, but a lot of people also finished an entry.

First of all, it didn’t require a major time investment, or learning new skills to participate. Anyone approaching the manifesto jam could largely determine the type and scale of commitment they would aim to make for it. Inflexibility here is what stops most people from joining game jams, or what they feel uneasy about going in. There are manifestos that are a handful of bullet points, and manifestos that are many many pages long, and most fall in between, so people could write as much as they did or didn’t want to. In this case, it was even less codified than the Visual Essay Jam, which generally asked people to submit a powerpoint, video, or pdf file. Here, people could go as simple as a .txt file or as complex as making some sort of interactive manifesto.

The jam period is also important. As last year, the period roughly spanned a weekend, with a day or two buffer on either side. Jams that take up the whole weekend are a bit ridiculous to me, since most people work during the week, and expecting them to burn up the days they may get to relax and recharge a bit staying up and stressing about finishing things is kind of mean, and completely undoable for a lot of people. It’s important that these two factors work together, though, rather than simply making the jam period longer. Month-long jam-likes, such as NaNoWriMo can be just as stressful and burnout provoking and inaccessible as weekend game jams, because the task scales up to fill the whole month. Rather than filling someone’s time, give them a period where they can set a goal and complete it in an energizing group setting, IMO.

What kinds of manifestos?

But enough of that. So we got a lot of manifestos, did anything interesting come of it?

I was constantly surprised by the range of topics covered by the manifestos that were submitted as well as the style and formats that emerged. I did worry it was too prescriptive to start Manifesto Jam with a sort of written manifesto in my own style, that this would color how or what people would write, even subconsciously. As people began posting their manifestos, though, that worry quickly evaporated. There was a huge variety, going in directions I never would have predicted.

Some drew on classic genres of manifestos, like the numbered list or bullet points, or a series of iterations on a phrase. These kind of manifestos come across as confident, to the point, or sometimes even hypnotic in their repetition. Others were a call to a sort of idealized, impractical action, a maybe-not-thought-all-the-way-through exercise, that proposes the unthinkable as a way to make us think about it. Interactive manifestos took the form of self-referential games as a statement on games, many made in Adam LeDoux’s tiny but elegant Bitsy engine (the new Twine? You decide…)

For those who make games, the Manifesto Jam was an opportunity to reflect on and refocus their practice. Many of the manifestos generated new genres or styles of games, some with existing examples and others more purely speculative or aspirational. Who knows what we’ll see come of these declarations in future months or years! Others did not declare a distinct movement, but instead proposed closer attention to certain aesthetic elements of a work. Others still explicitly addressed where they wanted their work to stand politically, within social and economic systems, certain standards to hold their own work to, or work habits to follow, against the pressures of the videogame industry.

Writers and videogame players of all stripes also gave their takes, which consisted of many meditations on the age old question of what is a (video?)game anyways, several with willfully mysterious or unconventional terms defying established discussions or common wisdom. An interesting subset which I hadn’t predicted emerging were also manifestos on objects or mechanics that appear consistently in games, asking how are they ideally deployed or misused? Many manifestos also touched on the role of critique, what current critique fails to address and what it should. And many expanded beyond the field of videogames altogether, which I guess I didn’t explicitly forbid and in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. Many of these qualities overlap and appear in a single manifesto, making it nearly impossible to categorize or sort them all. I’m only presenting these statements as a kind of tantalizing hint at the breadth and variety of manifestos, and if any appeal to your interests, just start digging.

Writing about games, Writing jams, Writing futures

My own manifestos were primarily concerned with ways of looking at history and value in videogames, how traditions and styles emerge for better or worse. I guess as an art historian it’s what I’m kind of obsessed with. This may not seem to gel with the forward-looking format of the manifesto, but primarily, they were concerned with the ways videogame history as told currently entraps us, gives us a tiny playpen to conduct our business in by creating classifications and restraining the discourse in ways that don’t represent not only the known facts of what people have been creating with videogames, but what their potential could be.

All manifestos are utopian, even ones that seem to be boiling over with disgust and dissatisfaction, or seem to be calling for a world that would feel dystopian to many (like the Futurist manifestos). Every manifesto represents an imagined world that would lead to the ultimate end it calls for. By striking down canons or common sense and defining new styles in our manifestos, we create mental space for a future where our visions could be established history. In the end, all of these wildly varied and occasionally wildly contradicting manifestos have to coexist. None of them can be universally, fully realized (and if you see this sentence as a challenge, try and prove me wrong!) but together, they are a taste of a more lively art world for videogames, expanding the ways they can be made and discussed.

Seeing people reading, loving, and being confused by other people’s manifestos, realizing their manifestos were in complete disagreement and yet somehow agreeing anyways, was an exciting eruption of engagement with games writing beyond simply rting or flaming. Creation of all kinds is often a solitary pursuit, writing almost always is, even if your writing explicitly discusses or responds to other peoples’ work. It can be lonely, frustrating, and we often end up talking past each other. While jams, and the showcases or sharing events that usually follow them are often a way for game makers to break out of their routine, work with new people or at least see how new people work, and view their practice in the context of a community, rather than just sitting alone in front of a computer screen, there really aren’t many equivalent settings for writers and critics to get the same benefits, and certainly not any as frequent and accessible as an online game jam.

This can create an environment where writers feel like islands only tangentially related and tangentially useful to the people doing the real work of making games, it can also make writing about games seem like it takes place in an inaccessible, far-off tower rather than something anyone can do. Writing jams are important to me because writing about videogames is not subservient to game development. Writing about videogames is not necessarily about making future games better or letting us know which existing games are good or important. The best games writing, like the best criticism of all kinds, stands on its own as engaging and revealing, like all writing should. And by that logic, we need the same sort of things that lead to collaboration and discussion and community and camaraderie and experimentation that game development needs.

Even if a manifesto is inherently head-in-the-clouds, frivolous, unrealistic, it’s also free reign to be impulsive, nonsensical, intuitive, to try something new and think about something differently. 121 people doing that in a single weekend-and-change is, to me, gigantic. I thank you all and hope you had fun, of course, but more than that I hope you keep writing, keep discussing, keep chasing and constantly changing your utopian vision.

~ Em :) (netgal_emi)