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Sisyphus, and the point of video games

Aubrey Anable explains the most-important art form of the 21st century.

So, you’ve stopped the final zombie with a perfect kill shot to the head. Congratulations. You’ve won the battle. But your high score doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the war.

Aubrey Anable was at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library on Thursday to, as she puts it, “defend video games from cultural commentators.” In other words, those who dare to call “Angry Birds” a vapid waste of your time.

Video games, she insists, are the most-important new art form of the 21st century.

An assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Anable’s contribution to what she calls “an emerging scholarship in the field of game studies” is her book, Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect.

Affect. In this case, the word means the experiences of feeling and emotion. For Anable, a guest speaker of UR’s Neilly Series Lectures, video games serve the same purpose as the poet Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: They lead us through today’s complex digital landscape.

Anable, who received her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester, reaches back to the 1930s, and the impact the relative new art form, cinema, had on the public. How those on-screen images spoke to audiences about the radical, new social emotions being generated by their rapidly evolving world. Affects. And how today, video games are now in that same role, a “ubiquitous part of our digital environment.”

“Video games,” she says, “have inherited and significantly revised the role of cinema.”

Anable recalls the early computer scientist Alan Turing’s question: “Can machines think?” And the follow-up question from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins: “Can machines feel?” Questions that cannot be answered, Anable says, from the perspective of “the simplistic idea that computers work like human brains.”

Human brains indulge in risk taking. They revel in achievement. Affects are biologically-based categories arranged by Tomkins, such as interest-excitement. And even shame-humiliation. Useful concepts. Shame, Anable says, helps to uphold social norms.

She traces the origin of video games to Cold War computer labs, where 1958’s “Tennis For Two” and 1962’s “Spacewar!” taught us how to feel about thermonuclear war. The mechanics of the computers of that day were beyond the reach of the average person – the hardware on these gadgets filled a room. So these games were intended to be ambassadors, created to make this intimidating technology “friendly and accessible,” Anable says.

The circuits we’ve traveled since “Tennis For Two” does have contemporary applications. For Anable, video games help make “techno-cultural conditions accessible.” They are “giving expression to how our lives are lived in the digital age.” They are extensions of email, social media and creating a word document, “ordinary activities imbued with the possibility of play.”

“Those interactions,” she says, “are necessary to how we live our lives already.”

Interactions that are less destructive than our often mean-spirited social media because, “The stakes are lower.”

Aubrey admits she’s less interested in big-budget, super-realistic, immersive games such as “Call of Duty.” She finds “casual mobile games” as a more-useful gateway into our digital era. Those include the various solitaire games, Suduko, Extreme Road Trip. Games played in short bursts.

“Video games are not an escape,” she argues, “but pull us into the world.”

Useful applications can be found at some level in even the most seemingly lightweight of escapist video entertainments. Anable cites “Plants vs. Zombies” as your gardening skills pitted against The Undead. And the zaniness of “Frogger” reflecting today’s age of “too many things coming at once.” More to her point, video games are also portals into pornography, art or learning skills such as math. “The video game,” Anable says, “is not just about one thing.”

But most importantly, Anable argues, just as cinema in the 1930s was a societal-teaching tool, video games are as well today. They are teaching us the rhythm of digital labor.

She talks of ergonomic shifts, people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, creating an easy flow, a rhythm between work and play. With phone in hand, we are now constantly connected to work. We are now in an age where our minds are slipping from one activity to the next. In this digital age, it is putting to work our short attention spans.

At this point, cultural commentators will step in and ask: Is this an improvement over a sustained focus?

Going to her laptop computer, Anable summons a video game and projects it on a screen for her audience in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. The game is “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment,” with amusingly primitive graphics by today’s standards. By manipulating a couple of keys, the player becomes Sisyphus of Greek legend pushing a boulder up a hill. Inevitably, the boulder rolls back downhill, and the player must start over. “There is no way to successfully complete the task,” Anable says. Your only choice is to give up and close the browser.

This is where the high score does not win the war. We have reached a key affect of video games, she says. An affect we must tolerate and dwell in. An affect that is a necessary step to success. An affect that even our system of capitalism can accommodate in tremendous amounts, she says, so long as the possibility of success exists.

That affect?

“All video games,” Anable says, “are about failure.”

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Censorship, lies, and the n-word

One of the greatest albums ever, The Allman Brothers, “Live at Fillmore East.”

I saw with great satisfaction that Haruki Murakami is among the literary luminaries to be featured at October’s The New Yorker Festival. My Friend Monica introduced me to the Japanese writer about a decade ago. I’ve since read a half-dozen of his novels, including the weighty The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twice. Murakami’s style has had a significant impact on my own words: I think of it as “Real Surrealism.”

Drawing far more attention was another guest who was confirmed on Monday as the festival’s headliner. Steve Bannon. But by Tuesday, the howls of protest had led the festival to drop Bannon. The toxic brand of racism practiced by the former Trump adviser was too much for intellectual spirit of The New Yorker Festival.

Censorship? What’s happened here forced me to recall some of my own brushes with the question. With Glenn Beck, when he was the king of Fox News. And the drummer from one of the world’s best-known rock bands, who dropped the n-word on me during an interview.

I had two opportunities to interview Beck. Late in 2005, he was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted to talk with the conservative television host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Was I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I worked for, allowing readers to make their own judgment?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. That’s the same reason I support The New Yorker’s decision to dump Bannon. Both Beck and Bannon have a well-documented, abstract relationship with the truth.

So I denied Beck access to my forum, minor as it was, just as The New Yorker has backed off on Bannon. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, and both men have their own platforms from which to spill their bile. Yet over the years, I also interviewed Ted Nugent and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. Two unlikable characters. In fact, I interviewed each of them twice. So, I’m not exactly consistent in my thinking.

But what about that interview with the drummer from one of the world’s biggest rock bands?

Butch Trucks played with the Allman Brothers Band from its earliest days, virtually inventing Southern rock at a house in Georgia, mixing in blues and jazz and whatever else a bunch of young guys do when not trapped under adult supervision. Trucks was the rhythmic force behind the sound. When I interviewed him by phone, maybe a decade ago, he was in a New York City hotel room, relaxing before a gig that night. It was an engaging conversation, he was very excited to tell me he’d just bought a DVD of the latest Lord of the Rings film. He was totally into the Tolkien books, he’d read the whole Middle Earth saga maybe a dozen times. Trucks said he loved reading, he was trying to make up for hitting the bars with the band as a young man, rather than going off to college.

We started talking about those early days. And the band’s decision to bring in a second drummer. Jai Johanny Johnson, better known as Jaimoe. Trucks was animated in his storytelling, describing his reaction upon meeting Jaimoe for the first time: “And in walks this big, black…”

And then, the n-word.

There was an awkward pause, maybe two or three seconds. I’m sure he was thinking: Uh, oh, I just uttered a racial slur to a reporter. And I know what I was thinking: What am I gonna do with that?

And, after that pause, he continued the story.

Short answer. I did nothing.

This is how I rationalized it. In his narrative, Trucks was taking us back to the days when he was a young, skinny white Southern boy of the ’60s, no worldly experience, reacting to an unknown, a black man. He was giving me his true thoughts from that moment, a half-century ago. Now he’d grown, the world had changed. Somewhat. There was no reason to believe he still thought that way.

So in the story, I wrote about Trucks’ love of Tolkien, his drive to improve himself intellectually, the early days of the Allman Brothers, his relationship with his bandmates now that they were older, some of them already dead. If I told the story of Trucks uttering the n-word, it would take over the story. Obscure the portrait of the man.

In January of 2017, Trucks himself was dead. Distraught over financial problems, he was in his Florida condo when he put a gun to his head and, in front of his wife, shot himself.

To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision in leaving out the awkward, unguarded moment of Trucks and the n-word. I think, maybe, yes. I’m about 75 percent sure of it. That other 25 percent is, was I protecting Trucks because I liked him, and the interview had been a good one?

My internal hand-wringing over my act of censorship gets even more complicated. I’ve heard the n-word sung, to great effect, by musicians ranging from rappers to Patti Smith. I read it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I heard black guys saying it on the bus on my ride to work. I recently watched a film, Wise Blood, an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor story, where a white actor says it. And it made me uncomfortable, even in the privacy of my living room.

Artists use the word, and guys telling stories use it, because it has the ugly ring of reality.

Ultimately, what Trucks said wouldn’t have made much of a difference in this most-significant debate in today’s America, race. It would have simply been a gossipy little shocker, quickly forgotten, but perhaps forever damaging to Butch Trucks. From our conversation, my sense was he didn’t deserve that. And without it, in what I confess is an act of censorship, I believe I presented the truer picture of our conversation.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

America’s hideous laugh track

No television situation comedy is complete without the laugh track. That eruption of pre-recorded howls of approval that instruct the audience – even if that audience is an audience of one sitting at home in front of the television – how to react to what it has just seen.

Now we’ve seen how a bad joke works when there is no laugh track, after Roseanne Barr tweeted this inexplicable attack on Valarie Jarrett, the former aide to Barack Obama:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

So for one news cycle, maybe two, a racist, xenophobic, conspiracy-consumed comedian nudges aside our racist, bigoted, megalomaniac president. A man whose glide path is eased by a different, but equally insidious, laugh track.

We’ve been watching the normalization of Trump for a couple of years now. First during his presidential campaign, and now through the 15 months of his presidency. From the outset, we knew what Trump was: A liar, a con man and a coward with no ethics. Yet in America, a country divided, there is a built-in audience for his Make America Great Again charade. A minority that struts like a majority, because it has a stamp of approval from the White House.

Roseanne Barr is done, her show cancelled. Her apologies are hollow. Last night, her barrage of tweets included retweets of Jarrett pictured side by side with an ape. Now the question being asked is: Given her history of irresponsible public comments, how did ABC even give Barr a public platform? An entertainment soapbox that quickly became the network’s top-rated show, one that even drew the praise of Trump, who said at one of his conservative-packed rallies that Roseanne was “about us.”

As always, Trump was lying. The “us” he was talking about is the blue-collar family portrayed in Roseanne. The “us” he was talking to is the blue-collar crowd that helped, along with the Russians, to get him elected. But Trump is not blue collar. He is a born-rich man with a dangerously overblown sense of entitlement, driven by impulses that can only be described as greed and immaturity.

For a couple of years now, at least, we’ve watched as the media gave Trump the benefit of what should have been obvious doubt. We kept hearing references to perhaps this Trump comment or that Trump photo op was a “pivot” to a more-presidential Trump. I experienced that myself in the outfit that once employed me, as stories and quotes from musicians and artists criticizing Trump were killed. One lower-level editor explained it to me: Those stories and quotes were killed because a higher-up editor “didn’t want to have that conversation.”

It is clear now, there will be no pivot. We are stuck with what we knew we were getting all along. Language and thoughts that had been hidden are now openly expressed. It is the new, shameful norm, endorsed by Trump.

And like it or not, now we’re forced to have that conversation.

Read that Roseanne Barr tweet once again:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

Realizing that her career was in jeopardy, Barr apologized for her “bad joke.”

But in the wide world of comedy writing, where is the joke in that tweet?

Barr was expecting to hear the canned laughter. But now, at least by a majority of Americans who can distinguish right from wrong, she will be greeted by silence.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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