It is a long form interview, and basically unedited: I did a little clean-up for clarity, but it’s still got conversational ambiguities, as well as some thematic inconsistencies because David was asking me questions I haven’t thought about.
In the interview I do talk a bit about why I’m embarrassed about being a gamer. “The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am”The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am. I’m pretty much of one, going back all the way to the original Colossal Cave adventure. I’ve tried most genres but seem to get the most enjoyment from various forms of first person shooters. I’m no good at platformers or other forms of twitch games. RPGs are too slow for me because I don’t get invested in the characters. Most online games are too hard for me, so I feel like I’m slowing down my teammates, although I’ve spent a lot of time in Left 4 Dead 2. Some other favorites: The Bioshock series. Portal 2. The original Doom and Wolfenstein. The Luxor games. Some pinball games. I enjoyed Dead Rising 3 and even Max Payne 3. Far Cry 4, too. I guess it takes at least three tries to get games right. Anyway, I’ve never had a systematic memory, so those are just the beans that fall out when I shake the ol’ pod, but they’re probably representative.
Games are literally a pass-time for me: I tend to play them as a break from work. I would count programming as a hobby, not a pastime because it’s got an outcome, like a crossword puzzle that once you’re finished you can use for something. When programming, I feel like I’m doing something, even though mostly what I work on are utilities that cost me hundreds of hours and by the time I die will have saved me minutes. Games simply fill the gaps in my interest.
So, why is it embarrassing to me? For one thing, many games support values that I detest. The most obvious is violence, but I haven’t found that a lifetime of killing screen-based enemies has inured me to real violence or has led me to favor violence over peaceful solutions.
“The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more”The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more because few people are going to be convinced by games that shooting hordes of aliens is normal, but many will be further confirmed that men are the real heroes of life’s narratives. Although games have become less grossly misogynistic and homophobic (e.g., female action leads are now not uncommon), if you have any doubts that they still trade on harmful stereotypes and assumptions — and why would you? — Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant “Tropes vs. Women” videos will set you straight.
But I’m more embarrassed about playing games than I am about watching action movies about which those same criticisms can be made.
In part it’s because games are associated with children. In the Don’t Die interview, I point to games that are more sophisticated and adult, but many of the games I listed above are no more sophisticated emotionally or narratively than a very bad TV show. So, mainly because I’m interested, here’s what I find appealing about the games I’ve listed:
Left 4 Dead is beautifully designed to encourage genuine collaboration among four players.
The Bioshock series creates imaginative science fiction worlds that would be better termed “political fiction.”
Portal 2 is a great logic game — a few rules and ingenious problems. But it is also an hilarious social commentary with Pixar-quality touches of brilliance. Example: the singing sentry guns.
The original Doom was scary as hell.
The original Wolfenstein let you explore a maze with surprises.
Luxor is an arcade game that is at a good challenge level for me. Also, the balls make a reassuring sound. (I am particularly fond of Luxor Evolved, which is “trippy” and somehow appeals to my lizard-brain-on-acid.)
Max Payne 3 was dumb fun in a well-realized setting.
Dead Rising 3 mocks its genre while indulging in it. It does not require precise control, of which I am lacking.
When I think about it, almost all of these games share some traits. First, they are easy enough that I can succeed at them. Most games are not. Second, they tend to have pushed the graphic envelope when introduced. I remain in awe of what those computer dohickeys can do these days. Third, “many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde”many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde in their values. Apparently I fall for that.
I think it comes down to this: If embarrassment is the exposure of something private that doesn’t match one’s public persona, then clearly, the major reason I find gaming embarrassing is because I am publicly a thoughtful person. Or at least I try to be. Or at the least least, I pretend to be. Most of the games I play are not thoughtful. Sure, Portal 2 is. Going Home is. Bioshock is in its way. But Dead Rising is mindless…except for its meta-awareness of its tropes and its own ridiculousness; I completed large chunks of it while dressed in a tutu.
This is not what a semi-academic is supposed to be doing. Or so my embarrassment tells me.
PS: In the Don’t Die interview, the game I’m trying to remember that has the word “dust” in its title is “Spec Ops.” There is dust in the game, but not in the title.
I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.
Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?
Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)
I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.
But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.
So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.
Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.
A few days ago, when Apple pushed the latest from U2 into everyone’s iTunes library, you could hear the Internet pause as it suddenly realized that Apple is its parents’ age.
Now in the ad-promotion succubus occupying the body of what used to be Time Magazine, you can see U2 desperate to do exactly the wrong thing: insisting that it wasn’t a gift at all. You can learn more about this in the hilariously titled cover article of Time: “The veteran rock band faces the future.” This a future in which tracks we don’t like are bundled with tracks we do (the return of the CD format) and people who share with their fans are ruining it for U2, boohoo.
Or, as Bono recently said, “We were paid” for the Apple downloads, adding, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” And as everyone knows, sacraments need to be purchased at a fair market value, the results of which Bono, as a deeply spiritual artist, secures in sacred off-shore accounts.
In my head I hear Bono, enraged by the increasingly bad publicity, composing a message that he posts without first running it through his phalanx of PR folks:
You have recently received a copy of our latest album, Songs of Innocence, in your iTunes library. U2 understands you may be confused or even upset by this. So, let me clarify once and for all the most important point about this — if I may humbly say so — eternal masterpiece. It was not our intention to cause you stress or to wonder if you have the musical sensitivity to full grasp (if I may, humbly say) the greatness of our work. But most important, it is essential above all that you understand that it was not our intention to give you a gift. No freaking way.
We understand your mistake. You are, after all, just fans, and you don’t play in the Jetstream world of global music. As I said to my dear friend Nelson Mandela (friend is too weak a word; I was his mentor) shortly before he passed, music is a sacrament, just like tickets to movies, especially ones with major stars working for scale, or like the bill at a restaurant where you and any two of the Clintons (Chelsea, you are a star! Give yourself that!) are plotting goodness.
To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed in you. No, worse. I’m hurt. Personally hurt. How dare you think this was a gift! After all these years, is that all U2 is worth to you? Nothing? Our music has all the value of a CrackerJacks trinket or a lower-end Rolex in an awards show gift bag? Do you not understand that Apple paid us for every copy they distributed? We were paid for it, sheeple! Massive numbers of dollars were transferred into our bank accounts! More dollars than you could count, you whiny little “Ooh look at me I’m sharing” wankers! We’re U2 dammit! We don’t need you! You need us! MONEY IS LOVE! EXTRA-ORDINARY LOVE!!!!!!
SPOILERS: Not really. I have a thematic quibble that I’ll keep at the level of saying something like “Much Ado about Nothing is a great love story except for an implausible plot mechanism” or “I love the evening palette of Good Night Moon, but, wow, nothing happens.”
So, Gravity is really good and worth seeing on a large screen. (Terrific use of 3D, by the way.) The use of the camera to tell the story is amazing, on a par with Hugo or the Life of Pi (to name two recent films). There’s a scene near the beginning where the camera not only fluidly changes its position, but also changes our point of view: from omniscient view of the universe, to observing the world reflected in Sandra Bullock’s space suit visor, to coming inside the visor and seeing the earth, its reflection, the HUD and Bullock’s face, and then taking the point of view of Bullock herself. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, is amazing in his ability to convey situation, point of view, sensation, and narrative. Awesome!
..the plot is a bit predictable, the way (as my son pointed out) mountain-climbing movies can be. Worse, this space odyssey is wrapped around a sentimental journey that is entirely unnecessary to the film. In fact, I think it would have gone all the way to stunning if they had adhered to the old adage: In space, no one can hear your backstory.
Still, it’s easy for me to carp. It’s overall awesome. And how the heck did they shoot it? Gravity-free stunt doubles?
Actually, I take it back: BROAD THEMATIC SPOILERS AHEAD. No plot points, however.
Breaking Bad has become one of my favorite shows ever. Yours too, probably. But it didn’t start that way for me.
The first season was driven by its premise: what would happen if a kindly chemistry teacher had to cook meth to cover his medical bills? (Ok, so that spoiled the first episode for you. Really?) That season was a series of set pieces, the sort of things you’d imagine if you took that as your premise.
The next two seasons were driven (it seemed to me) by the escalating plot and by letting Walter grow into a role, as if the writers said, “What would happen if Walt became a Tony Montana, or a Tony Soprano, except really really smart?”
But in the last two seasons, the show became a living thing, driven not by premise, role, or plot. It has become emergent. And this is enabling it to explore themes — e.g., What is the nature of evil? Is there justice? Can we know ourselves? — without severing those themes from the people who are living through them.
[Still no spoilers] This is how the great dramas have worked. I’m reluctant to make the comparison, but there is no separating the character of King Lear, Macbeth, or Huckleberry Finn from the themes their works explore. Because the themes are worked through by highly specific people, it becomes impossible to decide exactly what the general lessons of the text are, which tells us something about the nature of morality. I like what Emma Smith says in her wonderful podcast lectures on Shakespeare: His plays unsettle questions.
Breaking Bad has become truly unsettling, and not just because of the violence or even because we can see ourselves in all of the characters. It is unsettling because it is pursuing themes through fully realized people in a world with no simple rules.
How Breaking Bad won’t end [SPOILERS about the story so far!!!]
SPOILERS about the story so far!!!
SPOILERS about the story so far!!!
So, here’s how I think the show will end, where “I think” should be read as “I know I’m wrong.”
The most recent episode, Ozymandias, was one of the best hours of TV ever. But one thing bothered me about it: Gomie. We see his body in the dirt, but not his face. The episode didn’t spend a second on the death of the only (almost) unsullied Good Guy in the series.
Now, maybe that’s the point. But it felt wrong. So here’s certainly how the next two episodes won’t go (a.k.a, proof that I am not Vince Gilligan).
I do think Walt has bottomed out and has begun the turn. He’s done the thing that even he has defined as the worst possible: turning Jesse over for a slow death, after tormenting him with how easily Walt could have saved the love of Jesse’s life. (I will accept the argument that ever since Walt poisoned the kid, he’s been running in circles at the bottom of the moral barrel.) But Holly’s “Ma ma ma” (wow, that kid can act!) has made him see that he doesn’t have a family and doesn’t deserve a family. So, he begins to do the best thing he can for his family, which is to pretend to be as evil as he actually is by lying about it having been all his fault, which of course it was. (Genius scene.)
In the final two episodes, I think Walt continues to try to turn things around as best he can. I expect no more rank evil from him. But this show is better than most about showing the consequences of our actions. So, how about this:
This Sunday’s episode begins with Gomez’s family coming to grips with his death. The DEA tells them Walter White was the killer. They’re heartbroken.
Walt comes back from the Bad Guy Protection Service in order to try to set some things right with his family. But just as he is about to take the ricin himself, Ms. Gomez shows up with a gun, fires … misses … and kills Skyler. (Maybe Walt Jr. instead, but I’m not made of stone.) Fade out to twangy Breaking Bad music.
If anything like this happens, you all owe me ONE MILLION DOLLARS.
I am a delicate little flower. If my body temperature goes up 1%, I lose the ability to understand anything more complex than the Spartacus* series on Starz. I enter a recovery state that can only properly be called “wallowing.”
I have something a bit flu-like. It hit full force on Thursday afternoon. (To the person next to me on the plane: I am truly sorry.) I hope to be sort of back at work on Monday, and to be non-contagious enough to attend the family Seder that night. But in the interim, I’m on my back wondering just how much of my incapacity is due to my privilege. I can take days off. I can sleep in a warm spot. I can watch truly awful cable TV. I can let myself feel miserable.
And in fact, I’m not wondering at all. I know that self-indulgence is 90% of my illness. In fact, like many Americans, I have fond memories of sick days as a child, being brought cocoa and noodle soup by a loving mother, not only certain that I would be well soon, but also dreading the return to normalcy.
It must be a weird, modern, and isolated thing that a class of people can look on some types of illness as a respite, a luxury. When else in history have we had the confidence that a small disease would turn out well and the means to be so pampered while ill?
The new season of Spartacus is bad. In the first season (which I’m not proud of having watched), because the show was willing to kill off characters, there was something at risk in the fights. It was a bit like Project Runway with swords. This new season is all hackity hackity, constantly surly characters, gratuitous nudity, and low growling voices I can’t understand but don’t need to. It’s spurring me to get well so I won’t have to watch it.
If I could give the show three things, my gifts would be:
But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.
There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.
Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.
We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.
It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.
But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.
I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.
We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.
And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…
This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.
Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.
Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)
And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.
So, here’s why I think this is relevant.
The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?
That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.