Thursday, December 22, 2016



Raise your hand if you considered these things as a teenager--and raise both if you came to some conclusion about them that you still hold:

-What are the differences between a terrorist and a postcolonial freedom fighter engaged in asymmetric warfare against an occupying power? Are there any? How do we decide which a person is?

-Are (relative) peace and order worth oppression? How much?

-Is it ok to enslave robots that have personalities and what looks to be free will?

-What's up with the Eichmann "banality of evil" thing? Can you be bad for just doing your job?

I bet there's a fuckton of hands up right now, and not even just from the kids who always sharked straight for the Isaac Asimov at book-fair time. These are commonplace moral questions of the kind everyone born in the mental atmosphere since mid last-century has had opportunity to think about--and they feature prominently in many entertainments that teenagers might watch (for example, the third one is in Blade Runner, the last is in fucking Clerks, and they all sound like questions that'd be asked in random Star Treks--especially if it was a Wesley episode.)

In 2016, these questions (and things like "is reality real or am I a brain in a jar?", "is gay stuff ok?", "is there a god?" etc) are teenagery questions. This is not to say these questions aren't important: they need answers and very often adult action or legislation hinges on some of the answers and often adults give the wrong answers--but generally they only become difficult in non-fictional contexts when specific realworld identifiable personal interests are stake (like: "Spreading feminism is good, but invading countries is bad--do these priorities conflict in Afghanistan?""I just dropped a lotttt of acid--how much of reality can I epistemologically verify right now on this roof?").

The bullet-pointed questions, outside specific real-world iterations, are so basic they shouldn't make adults think. An adult thinking about these things would be like a teenager thinking about how to get socks on.


...yet somehow we still see the myth that Thought Provoking And Grown Up media "explore" these kinds of questions (to some undefined degree of exploredness) in their made-up worlds.

A typical example of the abuse of these terms appears, with some Rogue One spoilers, here.

The concepts of "grown-up" vs "adolescent" art--and related dichotomies like "mere entertainment" vs "makes you think" and "shallow" and "deep"--are as leaned-upon as they are vaguely-defined. "Thought-provoking" is usually used by critics to describe a work's attempt to communicate to other people the critic conceives of as less intelligent than the author that they should think about some things the critic already has long ago made their mind up about. The reader of such criticism often gets the feeling the critic wishes the world would catch up to the artwork--but what's noble in that sentiment is buried under the self-deception of pretending the art is doing work that it isn't.

This is why RPGs like Dogs In the Vineyard are alleged (by fans, not always the authors) to be more grown-up or thoughtful than D&D even though questions like "Is being a religious fascist ok?" and "Is cheating on your wife in the wild west ok?" are not actually remotely grown-up moral questions. Are there adults who would play Night Witches who were sexist before and decided not to be after?

Not only does the description of an artwork as "thought-provoking" etc often not actually involve the thing having provoked the speaker to have new useful thoughts, it's an expression of basically the opposite: the work, if anything, entrenches the critic further in their pre-existing beliefs.

Fascination Creates Content

Does that mean creating truly thought-provoking art is impossible? No. Or, at least it's no harder than making good art.

Here's a fact: how much artworks can say is largely an issue of how many questions you ask them.

There are people who read about King Arthur as a child or see a film of Hamlet as a teen and enjoy them, maybe think a little, maybe get a little, then move on. Then there are people who keep asking these artworks things their whole lives--and keep getting useful answers. TH White asks the King Arthur story some childlike questions in Sword And The Stone (People get turned into animals? What would it be like to be turned into a bird?) and some very grown-up ones in later books (What would it be like to actually be the Lancelot described in the poems--a man who combines total nobility, immense capacity for violence and sexual dishonesty? Is that even a real personality?).

I'm going to go ahead and say there's no evidence this interrogatibility isn't true about any stupid thing you like. Because the mere fact that an art object fascinates you when others superficially similar do not tells you that it is hooking into something in your unique psychology. If you like the old Power Puff Girls but not the new Power Puff Girls and you think about Power Puff Girls every day even as a grown up than Power Puff Girls is talking to you, telling you about sensibilities, sensitivities, subliminal appeals that no other tool could articulate to you.

The amount of content a work of art has for any given audience member is always at least as large as the degree to which that audience member is fascinated with it. The fan who claims Ulysses has all the answers to the universe in it is right--but so is the fan who claims Ulysses 31 does. The main reason there are less of the second guy is because Ulysses was trying to do that. But a thing's desire that we should be fascinated is never necessary or sufficient to make it so.

This is because anyone's fascination is an index of mysteries unsolved to their unique human psychology. There is no such thing as empty appeal or "mere entertainment"--this is just a device critics use to hold their enjoyment at arm's length to avoid asking themselves why something in them they can't account for still wants to see lasers and swords move in this way rather than that way.

Calling lasers and swords (and mean girls and make-up and prom) or anything else that is entertaining you, an adult, "adolescent" is cheap--because if, as an adult, you keep asking lasers and swords grown-up questions, you will keep getting grown-up answers. I asked rocket cats questions once.

Everything Can Be Adult

I read TH White's Once & Future King as a kid and didn't really get a lot of the stuff about the adults. I read it--and enjoyed it--as just descriptions of some people. What I didn't have is the recognitions--Oh, that feeling. Oh, that kind of guy, that kind of girl. 

This, rather than any attempt in fiction to focus attention on ethical dilemmas, is probably the most exclusively adult kind of art-moment: seeing things and having them remind you of things and times gone away. This is why, stereotypically, the older people are the more likely they are to cry--everything reminds them of something.

White's book has:

-kid+adolescent+grown-up content (pretending to be a bird, knights fighting)
-adolescent+grown-up content (the jokes and subtle inversions in the dialogue)
-grown-up-only content (the wistful, compromised emotional politics in the court).

I'd hesitate to be so vague as to call that content deep. Like "problematic", it's a word people use when they're afraid being pinned down to specifics would embarrass them. I'd say simply that part of White spoke to experiences I had because I'm an adult, with no value judgment beyond saying certain parts of the Big Lebowski speak to experiences I've had because I'm a nihilist porn actor who lives in Los Angeles.

Some Things Are Only Adult

After Rogue One (which ruled, btw), I saw an unimpeachably grown-up movie about people in the real world where everyone was going to a funeral and an old song started to play and it felt distant and melancholy. I was reminded of things I'd been through and the song kept playing in my head for hours. I definitely was provoked to think--about people and about time.

The film was the kind that tried to build itself largely out of grown-up-only content. You can do that: you can make good things for grown-ups that kids can't get anything out of (and people should, and they are not discussed enough in places like D&D blogs) but you can't do the opposite unless you get down to the level of like Barney and Sesame Street. As soon as you get up to 6 or 7 years old--say Spongebob or Duck Tales--you're back to things some adult somewhere can productively obsess about ("Scrooge McDuck As Avatar of the Imperial-Heroic" etc).

Finding Meaning In Art Is Like Finding Geology In the Ground

I don't think you can be provoked to think by design. I think you can be persuaded to think, but only using the same tools with which you can be persuaded to play at all: by finding something so beautiful and fascinating and fun that you choose, in quiet moments, to think about the thing rather than be separated from it. If you wake up thinking about Overwatch and you go to sleep thinking about Overwatch then eventually, if you're a thinker, you will start thinking about Overwatch.

Finding meaning in any art is like finding geology in any ground--you dig, you'll get it. Fictions don't explore issues--people explore fictions and then find issues there. When you invest hard enough you get an inevitability: the evidence left when complete, complicated humans contrive to find new ways to speak to as-yet-untapped parts of other complete, complicated humans.


MonteCook said...

Your point about people labeling something "thought provoking" (which is, as you suggest, almost always actually "thought confirming") makes me think that really, all general labels like that--"important," "problematic," "adult," "immature," etc. are just lazy descriptions by mediocre thinkers used to put things in boxes and ignore the depth and nuance that pervades most things. People who like to put things in metaphorical boxes think that they do that to put order in their world but I think that's bullshit. People put things in boxes because then they're safely "away" and then they don't have to think about them. Whether it's "all Muslims are terrorists," or "D&D is nothing but power fantasies," or "Shakespeare is great," these are all just ways of avoiding thinking about them anymore, because dealing with nuance is difficult and challenging.

You raise a lot of other good points as well.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think unconsidered words and definitions are at the heart of it--but also cliches in general.

Some cliches incarnate good ideas but we just don't think about them because they're cliched. Like "pretentious" has a root in "pretend"--which is the etymology giving you good advice if you're there to hear it

Other cliches _we were actually present at the birth of_ and never incarnated good ideas:
"All muslims are terrorists" is an interesting one--

The 9/11 terrorists were:
-Religious zealots
-From the middle east this became shorthanded and stereotyped into "From the middle east=terrorist" rather than "Religious zealots=terrorists" says more about our culture than anything else. Particularly because only 2 of those attributes are a _choice_.

The lens of that shows how our culture instinctively bent around the problem so that these people would be less likely to be analogized to the (very many) white Christian domestic terrorists we already had and more likely to be analogized to anyone in the middle east fighting for any cause whatsoever.

We now have a president supported by white christian terrorists and a massacre in the middle east where the majority of Americans are unclear who the sides are.

Danielle Osterman said...

This was very insightful. I was wondering if you had run into Holly Watkins' Metaphors of Depth in German Musical Thought which focuses explicitly upon the problems of using the term 'depth' in (musicological) criticism.

To follow up on your conclusion, yes, absolutely - "art" objects are sites for meaning-making and not ontologically different from "non-art" objects.

Zak Sabbath said...

1st P: haven't read it, might check it tho

2nd P: I think defining art as a "site for meaning making" is off/

I think "meaning making" is an option with all objects (which I think is part of your point)

..but I also think (for that reason) art objects (and games and whatever) need to stop defining themselves as engines of meaning.

Everything has meaning--not everything is beautiful or fascinating or fun.

Go for beautiful or fascinating or fun--those are ambitious goals.

Danielle Osterman said...

1). It's a good read.

2). Yeah, that was my point. Signification is an action people take on objects.

It seems, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that you are implying that rather than defining "art objects" as "things that signify", we ought to define them as "things that are beautiful/fascinating/fun".

While beautiful/fascinating/fun are far more actionable design goals, they can be assigned to (potentially) all objects as well, since they are also highly subjective.

Zak Sabbath said...

Not exactly: I think art should _try to be_ beautiful/fascinating/fun

I think the definition of "art" (or "game" or creative project" or novel" or whatever) is simply a commercial proposition: objects that you need to call "art" to make money off them.

Danielle Osterman said...

Fair enough. I can get behind both of those propositions.

Structured Answer said...
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Zak Sabbath said...

Could you expand on that?

Structured Answer said...

"Everything has meaning--..."


Zak Sabbath said...

Please expand on that, Structured.

We don't do half-conversations here.

Structured Answer said...
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Zak Sabbath said...

What part of the OP is that supposed to be a comment on?

Danielle Osterman said...

Is this in response to the set of questions initially posed?

Structured Answer said...
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Structured Answer said...
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Structured Answer said...

nihilism doesn't have meaning (no matter how long you dance around the houses inventing definitions).

Zak Sabbath said...

Try to give a better, more articulate answer.

Are we asking the freedom fighter/terrorist if THEY have compassion or disdain?

Are we asking if we have compassion or disdain for them?


And why did you bother to answer this question?

Zak Sabbath said...

Do you think that including or dividing are the only possible goals of art?

Say yes or no

Zak Sabbath said...

Ok. But you still need to prove the statement "not everything has meaning".

Structured Answer said...
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Zak Sabbath said...

I asked you a question

You need to answer questions that are asked of you or be banned.

Structured Answer said...
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Structured Answer said...
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Zak Sabbath said...

1. The goal is not to make you think in this case it's to help people reading you understand what you mean

2. If the premise is false in some way that makes it a leading question, you can state why you that is--I can't see what part could possibly be. You can simply type "no" if the premise is simply false, that's why no is an answer.
However, you've refused to answer a question above so you're now banned.

Dan D. said...

I remember when you asked about supposedly thought-provoking indie rpgs on G+. I was one of those who actually had a thought based on the aforementioned DitV. (You even admitted it was an actual thought at the time. I felt quite accomplished given the other comments I saw, especially regarding the same game.)

After reading this article, I am convinced that I was seeking out a special thought to have, simply because I was convinced that there should be one given the hype of the game, mostly from its online fan base. In the end, there's no reason a game of D&D can't raise the same question if it somehow comes about.

I also wonder, if Blade Runner lends itself to making me think about questions I already know how I'd answer, then does rewatching it become less valuable? Maybe it's because such questions don't come up in daily life very often, but being reminded of how we'd answer them is of importance to us...?

MonteCook said...

The only thing that gives me pause is your use of the word "unconsidered." Because I think (at least some of) the people *are* considering their use of these useless, lazy words very much. It's not just a blindness to nuance (although sometimes it is), it's a fear of nuance. "From the middle east=terrorist" is easy and clean. Lots of people want their world to be easy and clean. They want to think "well, we've got this terrorist thing all sorted, so we can go back to figuring out what to have for dinner." But bring "religious zealots" into it and someone might start pulling at the thread of "but what about Christian zealots?" and suddenly nothing is simple or clean anymore. And that doesn't let people think about dinner anymore. It doesn't elect candidates or sell toothpaste.

To bring it back to your original post, I believe that's why people label things "thought provoking" rather than actually letting their thoughts be provoked. Fear and laziness. People (and I'm obviously generalizing when I say "people" here) want their news, their art, their opinions, and their very view of the world to be able to be quickly digested and easily summarized, and--perhaps most importantly--labeled.

To go off on a small tangent, as a writer, I find it astonishing how many others think of their own world (and the work of others) only in terms of labels and strict categories. "This is the scene where X happens," and "this is the scene where Y happens" and X + Y = story. It's like reducing painting to simply paint by numbers. I watched an interesting video called The Epidemic of Passable Movies, and while I don't agree with everything the guy says, I found his point at the end interesting that one commonality of mediocre movies is that the characters don't act like real people would in their situation, they act like characters from other movies would act.

This is, in my opinion, what happens when even artists resist the idea of nuance in their own work.

Tom said...

What I liked about rogue 1 was that, at least at the start before it devolved into an admittedly awesome CGI free for all, it touched on the ethics of the rebellion and fighting for freedom vs doing wrong. That and portraying intrigue amongst the imperial generals. Just gave a few shades of grey to the previously black and white sagas. oh and the cinematography was good too.

CJGeringer said...

Fantasy books were a very important part of my formative process, and there are books I would call "thought provoking", not because they give an asnwer that confirms my personal conclusion, but because they do not give answers.

In media where tought situations are presented like that, without giving an specific answer, but rather analysing two or more sides without giving an answer as correct,I believe this kind of art can be called thought provoking.

Danielle Osterman said...

But we can read those questions into most media, not just media that specifically calls it out, and so all media could be "thought-provoking", just as someone could consume media that does explicitly talk about it, say "huh" and move on with their lives without following through on the thinking.

Being "thought-provoking" or whatever is a choice the consumer makes, not the artwork (since art doesn't have agency).

Zak Sabbath said...

That is true.

If that were how "thought provoking" were used most often in RPG circles then I would not have had to write this.

Zak Sabbath said...

What and whose assertion are you responding to, Dani?

Danielle Osterman said...

I apologize - I intended to respond to Charles' comment.

Verad Bellveil said...

You mention the following:

"Are there adults who would play Night Witches who were sexist before and decided not to be after?"

This in the context of this essay clarified a problem I've been trying to articulate for some time in a number of games aligned with the storygame movement - they seem to be deep and often claim to be transformative experiences, but only to the people who already agree with the author going in. A group of players who don't are almost treated as an intrusion - I'm thinking of A Place To Fuck Each Other in particular on this point.

My read on games like these is that they treat the elements they consider "thought-provoking" to be settled questions - not only settled, but self-evident, which differs from your stated awareness that people do have to go through a process of figuring out these questions over time. Why do you think these kinds of games still pay lip-service to the idea of a figuring-out process when they already seem to have a pre-determined answer players are supposed to reach?

Zak Sabbath said...

The defense of these games' content I've heard is more that you _experience_ the premise more and so might come to a more holistic understanding.
Like "telling" vs "showing" or "feeling". However I still think the behavior of every zealous indie fan I've ever met suggests the amount of enlightenment (even long term) that these games provide is exactly zero, as they are among the least empathetic, understanding, generous, thoughtful folks I've ever encountered.

Whatever these games do, I will take on faith that they do it to some enjoyable degree to the target audience. I haven't seen evidence that would be accurately described as "Provokes thought" though. At least not:
-provokes unusual or even good thought
-to a degree any other RPG doesn't

Zak Sabbath said...

Note: a first-time commenter named " uncolober " left the following (stupid) comment here:

With all due respect, these sentiments should only require about this much text to express:

1. Regarding (a) relatability, (b) relevance and (c) sheer availability of life-experience schemata,
— Not everyone has experienced being an adult.
— Everyone has definitely experineced being a child.

2. "Thought-provoking" (and its variants) is a buzzword and has a discussional value of such.

...and then we had a long conversation where they admitted this wasn't true and committed several fact-checking errors and logical fallacies which s/he then failed to admit, moving goalposts repeatedly.

As it was very long, had more factual errors than it is convenient to point out, not especially relevant to anything anybody else cares about and I don't think it's ok to host misinformation on the blog, I've deleted the whole thread.

For a transcript, email me at zakzsmith AT hawtmayle

Verad Bellveil said...

That was a wild ride. I will be e-mailing for it later.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this article.

"Here's a fact: how much artworks can say is largely an issue of how many questions you ask them."

That's such a powerful idea expressed so simply and elegantly. Thank you for the read!

Every Comment A Poem said...

They did but you didn't want to 'get it'.

Zak Sabbath said...

Public Public, you need to quote that proof now.

Again: we don't do half-conversations here.