On Sexual Predators and the Business of Shame

Hello everyone. Before starting this article, which is going to be very serious, I’d just like to take a second to acknowledge that I recently hit 1000 views for 2017 on The Wooden Man, which has been a life goal I’ve been aspiring to for a while now. My aim was to reach that number before the end of the year, and I’ve hit it without even starting 2017’s Album of the Year, which is amazing. So thank you for reading, everyone.

1.) The Power of Celebrity

Now, as I’m sure anyone who has been following the news will have noticed, there have been several stories of high-profile sexual abuse, misconduct and harassment in mainstream media outlets and beyond over the past few weeks. First there was the Weinstein scandal, then the allegations against Kevin Spacey, who tried to deflect child abuse claims by coming out as bisexual.

Then there was Louis CK, and George Takei. And then, a week before me and my brother had tickets to see them live in the O2 Brixton, emo/rock band Brand New cancelled all upcoming shows following accusations of sexual misconduct against lead singer Jesse Lacey. Lacey admitted via a Facebook post he had manipulated women and cheated in the past, while ignoring (though clearly not denying) claims he solicited nude pictures from a fifteen year old girl.

That one was a particularly tough pill to swallow. Brand New were a band I, like many other people, was emotionally invested in. But listening to their music now makes me incredibly uncomfortable – lyrics that used to read as generalized relationship melodrama are now pretty plainly the confessions of an emotional abuser. Take these, from the anthemic ‘Me vs Maradona vs Elvis’, which I’m sure thousands of teenagers have belted out in their bedrooms:

‘I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans / My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent / Bring you back to the bar get you out of the cold / My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes … You laugh at every word trying hard to be cute / I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do’

Perhaps we were being wilfully ignorant. If I’m honest, I knew listening to ‘Me vs Maradona vs Elvis’ that the song carried undertones of emotional if not sexual abuse, certainly a heavy dose of power and manipulation. But it’s easy to ignore when it comes from someone you admire, and that’s precisely the attitude that has enabled these men to do the things they have done, whether it was Lacey, Weinstein, Spacey, or anyone else.

The tidal wave of allegations that have been levelled against countless men in the last few weeks are a sign that sexual harassment and assault are far more widespread that many of us would dare admit, and are a chilling reminder of how celebrities can abuse the very real power we all collectively grant them.

 

2.) The Business of Shame

At the same time, the way these stories are being reported concerns me. I feel that the conversation surrounding these issues has shifted from a measured and very important discussion to a blind witch-hunt, and that respectable publications are sinking to tabloid tactics, throwing as many bodies as possible onto a funeral pyre of public shame while we all rub our hands with malicious joy.

Before I go any further, I want to share a screenshot I took from the frontpage of msn.com about two months ago, before any of the sexual misconduct stories broke. I was trying to log into Outlook and was stopped in my tracks by the page below, which struck me as hilarious and disgusting in equal measure:

msn ss

SLAMMED. Three of four top stories describe how different people are being SLAMMED, either for their appearance or their political views. Another two stories below describe people who are furious about things, while the rest are cheap attempts at provocation (Dec on holiday, the Grenfell lady). If it wasn’t already disgustingly apparent, shame and fury are the language of tabloid journalism.

But the wider media world is well versed in that language, too. In the days after the Jesse Lacey story broke, I checked the News section of music website Pitchfork regularly, and every single time I did I found a new story of sexual misconduct or harassment. That isn’t an exaggeration. Here are six separate stories in which people have been accused of sexual misconduct, and one in which Morrisey gets publicly shamed for defending Kevin Spacey:

https://pitchfork.com/news/russell-simmons-accused-of-sexually-assaulting-a-minor/

https://pitchfork.com/news/fyf-fest-founder-sean-carlson-accused-of-sexual-assault/

https://pitchfork.com/news/pinegrove-cancel-tour-after-accusation-of-sexual-coercion-against-frontman-evan-stephens-hall/

https://pitchfork.com/news/morrissey-defends-kevin-spacey-questions-accusers-motives/

https://pitchfork.com/news/backstreet-boys-nick-carter-accused-of-rape/

https://pitchfork.com/news/the-gaslamp-killer-sues-over-rape-allegations/

The story about Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter is about twenty minutes old as of my writing this – I checked in with Pitchfork once more before finishing this article and found yet another sexual misconduct story. Two of the above stories are regarding people I’ve never even heard of, but am presumably still supposed to be outraged about. And the last one is crucial, because it details an accusation of sexual misconduct which as of writing is unverified and currently being settled in court, but which led to The Gaslamp Killer being dropped from his label and event organizer.

Now, please don’t think for a second that I’m defending the actions, proven or alleged, of any of these men. Of course I am not. Any form of sexual misconduct, anything non-consensual in any way, is deplorable and disgusting. But many publications are walking a thin line at the moment, and a lot of unverified information is being thrown around just to add fuel to the fire of this story.

And here’s something else important to think about: the front page of msn.com is full of ads. Those ads are paid for by businesses that are literally cashing in on public outrage. Likewise, Pitchfork are making money every single time anyone clicks one of the links above, and the fact that all these stories have risen to the top of the front page suggests that many people are.

Public shame is a business, one which is very cleverly able to hide its dubious motives behind a veil of righteous indignation. Yes, it is a good thing that these stories come to light if they make people step back and realize the extent of sexual misconduct. But ask yourself – do you really think publications like Pitchfork, even the BBC, are primarily pushing these stories because of a social justice agenda? Or is it because scandal sells, and sexual misconduct is a huge views driver?

I think it is the latter, and I’d like to suggest people take a step back to think about WHY they are outraged, WHO they are really outraged at, and WHICH corporations are making money from that outrage.

PS please don’t publicly shame me for writing this

The Wooden Man

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GAME REVIEW: Boxboy! (HAL Laboratory, 2015)

A simple idea polished to perfection from a developer with a strong pedigree. Boxboy! is not a revolutionary puzzler, but a very cleverly designed game with plenty of ideas which moves along at a breezy pace. Creating and manipulating boxes is a simple bit intuitive mechanic which conceals more depth than is at first apparent, and HAL build upon these ideas very smartly, with each new world offering up a different type of environmental hazard in a thirty-minute chunk of gameplay.

Having said that, though, I found myself waiting most of the game’s length for HAL to start combining these ideas together and making some really ambitious levels. It isn’t until the very end of the game (and the post-ending puzzles) that all your acquired skills will be put to the test, and its quite possible that many players will miss out on worlds 18-22, which are easily the best in the entire game.

In these stages, you’ll frequently have to think outside the box (couldnt resist, sorry) to traverse some really tricky combos of sticky blocks, moving blocks, falling platforms, portals, lasers, switches, and all manner of obstacles. The final two worlds even grant you the ability to place two sets of blocks at once, as well as access to a costume that doubles your jump height, both of which are slightly game-breaking, but feel like just rewards for having made it all the way to the end.

Time attack and score attack modes are a nice little change of pace, even if many of the other purchasable goodies in the shop are fairly useless. The ‘hint’ system, on the other hand, is more of just a ‘give me the answer’ button and strikes me as a lazy concession to accessibility.

Still, Boxboy! is an exceptionally tidy puzzle platformer that knows where it’s strengths lie, concealing a surprising level of complexity behind its simple but effective art style. Although it’s a shame so much of its best content comes right at the end, Boxboy! is thoroughly worth seeing through to the conclusion of its generous 12-hour runtime, especially given its paltry £3 pricetag.

8.4/10

In Pursuit of Knowledge: Jonathan Blow’s The Witness

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves like locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue” – Rainer Maria Rilke

About five hours in to Jonathan Blow’s mysterious & cerebral puzzle game The Witness, I had an epiphany. I was picking my way through an abandoned town, full of wild grass and running wires, when I stumbled across a shipping container. It was situated in the centre of a crumbling building, about twenty metres or so from the shoreline of the island upon which the game takes place. On the locked door of this shipping container was a maze, much like all the puzzles that make up The Witness, which was populated by colourful symbols I had never seen before.

I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the puzzle, but eventually decided to leave it and come back later, sure that The Witness would teach me these new pieces of logic when it wanted me to open the door. Sure enough, two or three hours later, I was wandering aimlessly through a swamp when I came across a series of panels which gradually explained (without a single word) how I could trace around yellow blocks to create shapes, and thus find the solution to the maze.

Armed with this new piece of information, I returned to the mysterious shipping container. I solved the tricky puzzle on its door with a fist-pump of triumph, and the door slowly creaked open with a satisfying electrical fizz. But what was inside? Ten pieces of gold? A new shield? A DLC discount?

thew3

No. Inside the shipping container was, of course, nothing but another puzzle. But not just another puzzle – another lesson. The panel innocuously thrown on the floor of the container was a simplified form of yet another mysterious set of symbols I’d seen elsewhere, and by solving it I moved one small step closer to understanding the endless mysteries of the island.

It was at this moment that I realized the utter brilliance of The Witness. This is a game which rewards learning with lessons, a game that is about nothing but the pure pursuit of knowledge, and uses that knowledge alone to gate the player’s progress through its twenty-plus hour runtime. There are no powerups or extra abilities in The Witness. Every bit of progress you make is as a direct result of understanding the rules and logic of the island, and your only reward for this task is the pleasure derived in doing so.

A craftily hidden puzzle on one corner of the island might, upon solving, unlock something in your brain which sends you rushing to its complete opposite end, finally understanding what that weird pyramid-shaped symbol means. And having solved that, you might gain a clue as to what that purple hexagon-shaped thing you encountered three hours ago was trying to ask of you.

The Witness’ gently unfurling structure is truly organic, able to be approached from any angle and at any time. It actively encourages you to leave puzzles you don’t understand and go exploring – the entire town, in fact, which you’ll encounter as probably the third or fourth area of the game, cannot be completed until you understand the rules of all ten other areas, but you won’t know that until you’ve spent some time playing around there.

And what a sense of freedom there is in not knowing, especially in the puzzle genre, which has been in thrall to Portal’s linear test chambers for almost a decade now. Too many devs have borrowed these closed-off, pristine white stages as a means of lazily gating the player to the next puzzle, while making no effort to hide the designer’s hand. The Witness’ crowning achievement and prime innovation is the way it makes its whole world into one enormous interconnected puzzle, then simply sets you free to roam.

And it is such a joy to roam. The Witness’ island is a gorgeous microcosm of the Earth, ranging from arid desert to autumnal woodland and marshy swamps in a dense space that can be traversed within minutes. There are bunkers, castles, temples, shipwrecks, and more secrets than I could begin to count crammed into every inch of geography. Everything in The Witness has a purpose, and one of the great joys of playing it is having your brain slowly rewired to see that purpose everywhere.

thew4

All of this conditioning and learning comes to a head in The Mountain, the game’s final area, which is so challenging it becomes as much about the desperation of unknowing as it is about the cerebral thrill of discovery and understanding. These last puzzles will force you to confront seeming impossibility in order to overcome it – an idea expressed with consummate elegance by an audiolog near the beginning of the area. For anyone who was tempted to commit the ultimate puzzle game sin at this stage and refer to a walkthrough, Blow imparts these words of wisdom:

“Therefore I thank you, my God – because you make it clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me…if, therefore, impossibility is a necessity in your sight, oh Lord, there is nothing your sight does not see” – Nicholas of Cusa, 1453

And sure enough, these brain-melting final puzzles become the most transcendent in the entire game, a gauntlet that push your acquired knowledge and wits to the absolute limit, but feel truly enlightening to solve. The game’s penultimate puzzle had me cutting out and drawing over multiple post-it notes to figure an answer, and when I finally solved it I felt such a flash of elation that I jumped out of my chair.

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There are very few games with the power to instil this emotion, but The Witness achieves it. Jonathan Blow has created a game that constantly forces the player to re-evaluate what they are capable of, to undertake sublimely daunting leaps of logic, and to luxuriate in the complete satisfaction of natural human curiosity. Only the most masterful game designers can teach without words, but Blow has complete trust in and respect for the player’s ability to learn, and it is this that sets his game apart.

Cerebral as philosophy, meticulous as science, but so wildly creative it could be nothing but a work of art – The Witness is the greatest puzzle game of them all, and perhaps the most intelligent video game I have ever played. It is the sort of game that seeps deeply into your psyche, and will have you mentally tracing circle mazes in satellite dishes, roundabouts and road signs. A game that you will not be able to stop thinking about, long after having put it down.

And as for that gorgeous, mysterious ending sequence? Well, whatever interpretation you take from it will be the right one. If there is one lesson The Witness teaches above all else, it is this: the pursuit of knowledge is, in the end, not about the answer, but about learning to ask the right questions.