Once again toiling through the series of walls of density that are pages of “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” and thinking about the dysfunctionally therapeutic properties of mass culture Adorno describes, a sort of repeating parade of convention where mix and matched elements are expected and satisfying when the audience notices them. As this cycle accelerates the conventions and what, if anything really, they call back to is increasingly meaningless to the audience, and cultural production becomes more about representing a formula than anything. Its therapeutic power in society was how it numbed the general population through the normalization of the alienation of an increasingly isolated and systematized life under capitalism by mimicking repetitious work but selling it as leisure, and is based in its ability to be recognizable, repeatable, and offer some sort of accessible hope or aspiration.
What Adorno said about film and radio today of course sounds most like videogames which are probably the most super-accelerated of all entertainment forms. Over their lifespan of 50-ish years so many things have lived, died, lived again through nostalgic repetition until you get shuffling zombies of games calling back to supposedly historical pixel art styles, game mechanics, jumps over familiar pit and spike layouts that never really existed. Did anything actually ever look like what the nostalgic visual direction of Great Art Game Passage is visually referring to? The treasure chest labyrinth (or rather representation-of-labyrinth) you can’t fully explore with the conceptual old ball’n’chain welded to your ankle is accepted as videogamey and historical because of signifiers that have become so repeated and so separate from their origin (what was the first video game treasure chest, and why?) that all they represent any more is yes, this is a Video Game.
If pop music became a representation of a musical formula, games are more like formulas representing formulas because they also have to make sense of input. They have to be activated, which is a call to interaction that can be taken well beyond the explicit intent of the game. Put in one thing, get the predictable outcome, and ooh, yes! This is how it’s supposed to be going is the ideal. (see: mythologized “flow” state that itself seems kind of nostalgic since it usually implicitly calls back to a specific childhood experience of arcade game superplay or something, the presumption of that shared historical moment built-in to design curricula.) Mariah Carey clearly not singing while her voice is just as clearly heard at the Times Square New Years Eve party this year is an example of what happens when one part of the musical formula slips out of place, but games failing to fill their formula or expectations sort of snowball beyond the illusion of the game as comprehensible system being destroyed. (see: the exponential leaps in speedrunning times offered by the discovery of one new glitch, how adding one oddball to your Petz breeding pool can create a menagerie of freaks, that infamous series of fail-able QTEs from Heavy Rain.)
Basically, videogames will happily enter a death-embrace with input that either accidentally or by design breaks it until the game becomes fully divorced from intent or unplayable or both, while a Mariah Carey song still sounds the same in the end whether her lip syncing at the time is convincing or not. I believe less and less in there being a certain collectively-maintained envelope of the possible or the tolerable which contains the real world, but in general I want to believe you can trip over one chicken but not three in real life because the latter situation is simply too ridiculous. Videogames have no such sensibility and never have. It’s hard for any other form to slip so easily into absurdity that is fully convinced of itself.
…That’s kind of a diversion from my actual point which is, the idea of so-called “marginal” practices in games, ie, speedrunning, fanart, fanfiction, fangames, homebrew, and possibly some indie spaces to some people etc etc relies on the formula format of games, as in, there is a satisfying existing system that you can put something in and something comes out in the predetermined manner. This is not only how games tend to be made (like pop music) but also what they are. Referring back to the same blog post that inspired the last thing I wrote, here, this sort of cultural production, which combines the extremely personal or idiosyncratic with infinite reproducibility, instant global distributability, and a sort of map to follow with the inbuilt exhortation that “anyone with a computer can Do It!” makes these practices less “outsider art” or marginal, and more “tucked away in the centre.”
This really helps me to negotiate the increasingly blurry divide between “fan practice” and “Game Making” as not so much a chartable divide at all but as a variety of ways of reconfiguring the cultural formula. One isn’t “outside” the mainstream, capitalism, etc, while one is “inside” so much as most of us are all wading in the same muck to different degrees, from the precarity and thanklessness of work in mainstream games studios, to the sudden shuttering of seemingly successful games publications happening stupidly regularly, to the wide gap between “indie hits” and the other ~200 little games a day that are made by everyone else.
When I see highly systematized videogame related fan production like the classic example of Sonic OCs, I see kids (and, okay, also adults) inserting themselves into the promise of the formula. It’s a way to be a part of the action while still asserting an aspect of yourself. Further, it’s a way to incorporate some of the success of the formula into your self-image. Even “original” indie games retain an element of this, and when we get into the messier (and more controversial for varied reasons) aspects of fandom, porn, slash fic, rom hacks, sex games and so on, I don’t really see a point where they become truly outsider. We’ve gotten to the point where even people who don’t have Ao3 accounts were looking at the all-male cast of FFXV and saying, well, that’s for fanfiction, right? Really, the form of videogames, specifically the elements of repeatability and distributability, have always included and even in part relied upon this outcome.
To me this kind of shuts down the nice idea of fanwork being meaningfully more liberatory than the source material. While it feels really good to write involved fiction about characters you identify with and find and make community with people who feel the same, it hasn’t really altered anything about the hell combo of societal forces women like me face that lead us to be overwhelmingly depressed or at the very least continuously alienated by how we “should” be in the current order under capitalism. It’s a coping mechanism that doesn’t change the formula, but allows me to insert myself into the formula, and feel like I’ve taken some of its power in turn… whether I actually have or not, well…. We all had those fantasies of our Sonic OC being noticed by Sega, right? (No, mine was from Megaman Battle Network)
The opportunity that instead arises from thinking of these things as already part of the center in a way is that we come to the conclusion that they’re already a logical part of Game Studies and game history, just as worthy of consideration. We don’t have to argue about why they’re relevant to understanding videogames in the same way the holy source code of Tetris or something like that is. Or really, we shouldn’t have to. I mean… obviously you’ll still have to convince some people but not me.
UPDATE: Cool response/elaboration HERE