How Poetry Died

For those who don’t know me in real life – I’ve been unemployed for a little while now since returning from India, looking for work and somewhere to live in London. I’ve had a handful of interviews already, and hope to have some good news on this front soon. But in the evenings, after I’ve spent my day drinking double strength coffee and slavishly refreshing indeed.com, I’ve been working on another task, one equally heroic though considerably more pointless. Like a modern day Sisyphus, slowly pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, I have been – yes – trying to clear out my Steam library.

Call it the one benefit of having too much time and not enough money: I’ve been trying to get through the long list of games I’ve purchased on digital game market Steam, but never found the time to actually play. Every adult with a Steam account probably knows that vaguely depressing feeling of scrolling through your games library and realizing you’ve never even installed half the titles in it. You feel like you’ve become just another cog in the wheel of cultural capitalism, a victim of market psychology: ‘Oooh, it’s half price – wouldn’t it be stupid not to buy it?’ But, inevitably, you never find the time to play through that copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 which was marked down to 60p.

A culture of consumption

Of course, we know why this is happening. The people who run digital markets like Steam, Playstation Store and Amazon are masters of sale psychology. Limited time deals, wishlists and free trials tap into a particular part of the brain, and lead us into purchasing decisions we might not otherwise have made. It doesn’t make any difference to the platform holders whether we actually play the games or watch the movies we buy, so long as we’re spending money on them. (As a side note: anyone who wants to learn more about how corporations advertise to you should watch this fascinating Youtube video on the six principles of persuasion.)

We can see it in the world of music, too. I’ve sometimes caught myself listening to an album for no more than twenty minutes before abandoning it forever, for the sole purpose of logging it on music database rateyourmusic.com, a website where I have rather obsessively ranked almost 2000 albums on a scale of 1-10. As someone who writes critically about music, it can certainly be a useful tool for keeping track of everything I listen to. But there’s definitely an element of fetishizing the sheer quantity of music that enters into my ears, without giving it the critical attention it deserves. And even more perverse is game database backloggery.com, which I recently stumbled across, where users spend large amounts of time creating detailed lists of all the games they haven’t had time to play. Instead of, y’know, actually playing them.

“This is the reason why poetry is pretty much dead in 2018”

I think this trend towards a culture of consumption, which has probably been happening since the industrial revolution, is accelerating faster than ever now that online stores make it so easy to purchase media. And I also think this is the reason why an artistic medium like poetry is pretty much dead in 2018, or has at least lost a great deal of its cultural relevancy. A book of poetry doesn’t have a runtime, or a clear beginning and end – it gives out as much as you’re willing to put into it. It requires patience and space to think, both of which are in short supply in the digital age. And it isn’t easily qualified or ranked. In short: you can’t consume it quickly and throw it away.

And poetry is also almost completely removed from technological advancements, which have been at the heart of culture throughout the 20th and 21st century. Film, games and music have all developed alongside the technology that powers them, taking us from rudimentary projections, Pong and Kraftwerk to 4K displays, virtual reality and an electric organ made entirely out of furbies. OK, whether that last one is an evolution or a monstrosity might be up for debate. But regardless, these mediums are the ones that have remained, or become, relevant to contemporary culture (by which I basically mean popular and financially viable) because people want progress. And in the digital era, technology is progress.

“We’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.”

I went to a poetry workshop in Bath a few weeks ago titled ‘Publishing Your Poetry’, which was hosted by a small publisher called Burning Eye Books. One of the things that struck me the most was when the speaker made a very casual comment that there was ‘absolutely no money in poetry’, and that none but the one or two biggest publishers do better than barely staying afloat. Of course, I never expected I would make any money from writing or publishing poems I’d written, but I was surprised to hear just how bleak the business reality is.

Perhaps that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Everyone who works on the publishing side of poetry does it purely as a labour of love, and for the sake of the art. Likewise the people who still feel the urge to write poems in 2018. If poetry is dead, maybe it can live an afterlife where it serves as an antidote to the culture of consumption which surrounds contemporary art? One which exists outside the whirlwind of reviews, sales figures, fame, twitter controversy, and – yes – steam sales. And even if that never comes to pass, we can at least take comfort in this thought: when Donald Trump and North Korea lead the world to an inevitable nuclear apocalypse and all human technology is destroyed, we’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.

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How Fortnite Became the Most Popular Video Game on the Planet

Every once in a while, there comes along a video game that reaches such enormous levels of popularity that it transcends the games industry and becomes a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. Over the last decade a handful of games have managed it: Wii Sports, Angry Birds, Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Pokemon GO are some of the first that spring to mind.

Fortnite is the latest addition to the list – the battle royale builder/shooter which is dominating Twitch and Youtube, and making waves further afield in the mainstream media. It’s set new records for concurrent viewers, and it’s been pretty much unavoidable on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was originally going to be a review of the game, but as I thought about it I was much more interested not in whether the game is good (spoiler: it is), but in why it’s been able to reach such enormous levels of popularity. What aspects of the game’s design, and of the world in 2018, have conspired to allow Fortnite to capture the zeitgeist as quickly and as completely as it has?

A New Genre’s Next Step

 

To start with, it’s the next step in the burgeoning battle royale genre, which has already proven compelling enough to support variations upon its key ideas and gameplay loops. This is how game genres develop: an innovative, popular game comes along, whose ideas inspire a wave of imitators and experimenters looking to expand upon the formula. PUBG is the game which laid the genre’s foundation, much as DOOM, Dark Souls or Spelunky did for the FPS, Souls-like and Rogue-like. But Fortnite is the first major player in the second wave of battle royales, and as such players and devs alike are looking to it for clues on how the genre will develop moving forwards.

Fortnite’s biggest innovation is, of course, its building mechanics. The ability to place walls, ramps and ceilings increases the pace of the game, offering a huge layer of strategy beyond simply aiming, as well as dissuading players from hiding in a bush for ten minutes. And – whether by a stroke of luck or canny design – those building mechanics have proven to be intuitive for a generation of young kids and teenagers who grew up with construction games such as Minecraft, and are now looking for something a bit more mature.

Minecraft (and imitators like Terraria) were and continue to be popular because they are essentially the digital descendants of Lego: they’re sandboxes where creativity and problem-solving can be learned through play. Fortnite, though it doesn’t offer the same level of depth in construction, taps into that same desire for creativity, and is one of the biggest reasons for its runaway success.

Image result for fortnite screenshot

Fortnite is riding the rising tide of the new media platforms on which it thrives”

 

This creative play, combined with the game’s competitive combat and elements of chance such as random loot and chests, generate stories. You’ll always remember that one time you dropped into Tilted Towers and found nothing but sticky grenades, but somehow blasted your way out alive. Or when you shot someone’s ramp out from beneath them seconds before they put down a launch pad, and cackled as they fell to their death.

It is these stories which generate another reason for Fortnite’s success: its watchability. Each 20-minute game has a narrative arc: the decision making before you drop, then the frantic looting and initial kills, the high-stakes interactions in the mid stage of the game (Is it worth attacking? Can I take them on?), and then the heart-pounding tension of the endgame, when there’s only a few players left alive.

Twitch streamers and Youtubers are successful when they are expert storytellers, playing the role of protagonist for their viewers to experience vicariously. Of course, it helps that Fortnite lends itself so well to bite-size viral content, while also being able to sustain multi-hour streams and e-sports tournaments at the same time (for my thoughts on why Fortnite will never be an e-sport, click here).

And it also helps that these platforms are themselves still growing at a very fast rate. Fortnite is riding the rising tide of all the new media platforms on which it thrives, and its success is legitimising streaming and e-sports within the mainstream media. The kind of news reports we used to see on e-sports – “people pay to watch you play videogames??” – seem further and further away each year.

“The game has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO”

 

The final reason for Fortnite’s success, in my opinion, is its accessibility. Not just in its intuitive building mechanics, or its bright cartoonish graphics which take after Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. But also in its price model – being free to play on PC, console and phones reduces the barrier to entry by an enormous amount, and opens up the game’s potential audience. Low barrier to entry is the reason why a game like football is played more than, say, tobogganing: if all you need is a round object and two goals, anybody can have fun playing the game.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end: fun. Fortnite is popular because it is immensely fun to play, whether alone, in a pair, or with a group. But all of these trends within game design, and the shifting media landscape in the world at large, have contributed to the game’s meteoric rise. It isn’t just a flash in the pan, either: Fortnite has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO. I’m sure E3 will throw up a whole lot of announcements of new battle royale games in a couple weeks time, but at least for now it’s hard to imagine anything challenging Fortnite’s position as the biggest game on the planet.

 

The Surface of Mercury

Here are some more poems from the collection I finished writing last summer, The Night and the Moth. I’ve been rereading all of them recently and I think they’re probably not modern or consistently high quality enough to be published, so instead I’m going to pick out some more of my favourites and post them here for anyone who’s interested. I’m currently working on another collection that I hope will be more cohesive called Pet Names for Music, in which each poem emulates the rhythm, mood and subject matter of a different album that’s been important in my life. In the meantime, here are some earlier poems about: seasons, planets, Brexit, Youtube, and having an anxiety attack. I’d love to hear any thoughts people have in the comments below.

The Surface of Mercury

Expose the cratered face of cold battery –
The weird terrain of cobbled paranoia
The shadowless plains of anhedonia
To the comet-laden sky.

Blasted at every step in silence –
Without an atmosphere to carry sound
The history of that gouged and glass-sharp ground
Can never be told.

The magma chamber is dormant.
Fireless and full of holes
With secret sheets of ice beneath the poles,
Resigned to an orbit both endless and lifeless.

A day lasts longer than a year –
The side that faces the blistering heat of the sun
Is an arid lunar desert, while the one
Opposite knows no warmth.

And all it knows for comfort
Is a blanket of airless blitzkrieg
As constellations of meteors descend
Upon the surface of Mercury.

 

Persistence

In Spring, the stem grows tall
And gathers power
In the rain.

In Fall, a beautiful thing
Does not flower
But sustain.

 

The Surface of Venus

The Romans thought they had seen
The surface of Venus in the night sky.
All they had seen was the skin.
All they had seen was the toxic orange cloud
Rocking with nine-branched Protean lightning:
They named it for their God of beauty.
When Gallileo first set eyes on Venus
And saw the cloud of dust through a telescope
He dreamed of seas and rainforests beneath.
But Venus held her mystery like a wet towel
And dared us to dream.
When we finally penetrated that dark mystery
And gazed upon the surface of Venus
There was nothing but rock.

 

Wrong Way Time

The promise of the superhuman
Circulates inside an empty room:
A body of bleach with silky skin
In a battery-acid tomb
And prosthetic lips that part to pose
A coiled up, cobra question:
Am I looking at the screen or my reflection?
COMMUNITY / ETERNITY / DEPENDENCE

The absence of a phantom limb
Craves the itch that it can never scratch
Nerves light up in halogen
Make every sense detach
And fill the lungs with septic breath
As venomous as spores:
Does the mind go blank while the sightless eyes explore?
ILLUSION / INVASION / AMPUTATION

The image pulls me out again
On a whispering riptide of streaming video
Avalanching everything
In drifts of pixel-glow
But if I turn the monitor off
And choose to hear the chime
Can I escape the flow of wrong way time?
LIKE / COMMENT / SUBSCRIBE

 

Independence

In the morning after the referendum
I walked through Bristol city centre
Making my way to work.
English flags were spilling from open windows
Like gargoyles, stately and foreboding.
But were they flying for exile
Or independence?
And should we call it freedom
This vote that leaves the nation
Isolated and divided in one fell swoop?
And now that unspoken histories of class and race
Have bubbled to the surface
How can we regroup?
How can we reconcile the anger and the difference between

Those who voted remain, but want to leave
A legacy of unity that’s bound
Like winding threads in a weave

And those who voted leave, but want to remain
An island of ignorant, bordered bliss
Like a child’s birthday party in the rain?

Anxiety Attack

Start
My eyes are inside
Out whats the matter with
Me were you whispering
Saw you were whispering
Break
My fingers scratch and
Shake don’t look at me
Saw you were looking
Can’t stop itching
Break
Can only hear my
Fear it shakes like
Bass it bursts and
Splits my eardrums
Break
I’m staring into
Space and I can’t see past my
Thoughts and I’m trying hard to
Breath but it just keeps
Going and I can’t stop
Twitching and you all keep
Talking I can hear you
Talking I can hear you
Break
My mind just isn’t
Right don’t feel
Safe can we
Leave I’m sorry
Break
Just need to be a
Lone
My mind feels like a
Stone
And it sinks beneath the waves

Break

How to Not Get Laid on Valentine’s Day

Hello everyone. Today is Valentine’s Day, and that means network television and organized broadcasting the world over will be delivering you a steady drip-feed of romantic sap to fuel your plans for getting laid. For those of you who have no such plans – for the freedom fighters rocking it solo on the most depressing day of the year – I’ve put together this list. Here are my favourite subversive movie romances: the tales of love that were weird, dark, or entirely unexpected. All are guaranteed to not get you laid on Valentine’s Day.

Wall-E

Yes, Wall-E. Wall-E is a movie about a pair of binoculars on wheels who falls in love with a floating trash can, and in the process of trying to court her accidentally ends up saving the Earth from a biological apocalypse. For my money, this is Pixar’s finest hour: a screwball romantic comedy starring two robots who never speak, and yet tell us so much about climate change, the nature of humanity and the power of love. And who could forget that intergalactic slow-dance through the vacuum of space, Wall-E flying around with his little fire hydrant, wide eyes staring longingly at his robot darling?

Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy contains two of the most romantic movies ever committed to film, but there’s something a little different about Before Midnight, its third and final act. This movie is about the parts of a relationship that don’t get idealized in movies: the late stages, where two people have become so comfortable with each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies they know each other better than themselves. Linklater’s depiction of marriage is dangerously intimate, and shocking in its pragmatism. “If you want true love, this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien is a coming of age story about two Mexican teenagers who embark on a road trip with an alluring older woman. All three characters have secrets, and Cuaron’s depiction of young love, lust and jealousy are scintillating as the group make their way across Mexico, a backdrop which seethes with political and economic turmoil. Much of Y Tu Mama Tambien’s power rests on a masterful romantic turn at the very end of the movie which I won’t spoil here, but which forces the viewer to reassess everything that came before.

Her

Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most contemporary and socially aware romances made this decade. In it, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theo falls in love with an artificial intelligence inside the operating system of his apartment, played by Scarlett Johannson. The unusual pair develop a growing intimacy throughout the course of some wonderfully written conversations about sentience, commitment and the nature of feeling. Her is both a glorious satire of modern humankind’s obsession with technology, and a touching, passionate story about the limits of what can (and cannot) be loved.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This excellent movie is all about love and memory: what we remember of the people we used to love, and how we might forget about someone we’ve stopped loving. Couple Joel and Clementine have a vicious argument, causing Clementine to seek the assistance of new age corporation Lacuna Inc, who have the ability to remove all her memories of the relationship. A devastated Joel resigns himself to the same procedure, but midway through decides against it, and the majority of the film takes place inside his mind as he fights to save his memories of Clementine from being erased. Imaginative, futuristic and totally unique: this is a romance like no other.

How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

_________________________

The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

Image result for cs go grand finals

For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

https://sports-images.vice.com/images/articles/meta/2017/01/06/touch-esports-1483731574.jpg?crop=1xw:0.8438244638602065xh;center,center&resize=1674:*

A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

Image result for u cypher

Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

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

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?

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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.

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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.