Objectivity and Modernism

However, he also displayed a personal dislike of critics: ‘I cannot abide people whose only job is to criticise what others do.’ As Reich chancellor he prohibited all art criticism in the press and decreed that only ‘contemplations of art’ and reports be allowed.

(Brigitte Hamann, Hiter’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man (London/New York, 2010), p. 81.)

I know it’s poor form to bring up the Nazis, but I’m doing it anyway.

The idea that game reviews should be ‘objective’ has been dissected and ridiculed sufficiently. Less clear, perhaps, is the extent to which the persecution complex of ‘geek culture’, embodied in the inability of some to distinguish between subjectivity and ethics, is a very old tune. Consider the following quotes, mined from 4chan by Liz Ryerson in response to the most recent eruption of histrionic internet misogyny:





This politically overheated atmosphere in Vienna led to veritable press battles between the two large camps: the ‘Jewish press’ on the one hand and the ‘anti-Semitic press’ on the other, the ‘wholesome opinion of the people’ pitted against ‘Jewish modernism’. Using the very lingo of the anti-Semitic press in Vienna, Hitler said as late as 1942: ‘By virtue of art reviews which one Jew scribbled about another, the people, which believes anything it reads black on white, was indoctrinated to a view of art which regards everything that is altogether kitsch as the latest artistic perfection.’


I don’t want to overdo the comparison; angry internet nerds are (usually) not Nazis, and there is a strong sense in which this recent unpleasantness, directed at a woman game developer by a group of trolls and hackers, was overdetermined by the usual slut-shaming, body-policing nonsense that women frequently have to endure — though I should note that the gender politics of Hitler’s milieu were eerily similar to those of so-called ‘men’s rights activists’ and other contemporary misogynists. In fact, ‘men’s rights’ was the name given by the proto-Nazi occultist, eugenics advocate and professional lunatic Lanz von Liebenfels to his plan to reduce women to the status of cattle. (Ibid, p. 218.)

Anyway. Implicit in all of this is the idea that cultural challenge in art will lead to the annihilation of previous art forms — diversity simply does not enter the equation. I suppose you could say that the totalising ideas of early 20th Century Austrian conservatives  — and 4chan pond scum? — naturally lead them to see any criticism of or deviation from their preferred art as a threat. It would be a trifle unfair to leave it there, though.

While no-one is trying to ‘take over’ or ‘ruin’ the preferred games of the muttering classes, there is still a sense in which we are witnessing a battle for hegemony, in the Gramscian sense of the word. Questions about the representation of race and gender and the purpose of games entering the critical discussion; an explosion in the quantity and diversity of games and artists; formal experimentation —  the anonymous internet trolls are seeing their hegemonic ideas about games, criticism, the industry and the world challenged by a kind of videogame modernism, and, like Austrian conservatives faced with scandalous modernism and libertinism, popular unrest and something called ‘feminism’, they are deeply uncomfortable and very, very angry. An anonymous poster, quoted above, implicitly acknowledges this challenge when they call for the creation of a self-conscious ‘romantic/traditional school’ of games. I expect this kind of self-consciousness will become more widespread the less hegemonic its Weltanschauung becomes.

For this reason, I don’t think there is anything to be gained from disavowing conflict. I for one absolutely hope that the kind of ugly reactionary nonsense that is built into mainstream games shrivels up and dies post-haste. The salty tears of weeping nerds sustain me. This is not the same thing as advocating censorship or conformity — I just hope that the ‘common sense’ of the industry (and the world) changes so that we can start arguing about something else, which is the main point of analysing things like gender in videogames in the first place. For the same reason, I’m not quite as sanguine as Liz Ryerson, who writes, in her excellent post, that the trolls are simply the ‘last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress’. They may be pathetic, but the denunciations of Viennese modernism were just as shrill. Just because misogynistic trolls feel impotent and persecuted doesn’t mean that they actually are. The tiny world of the game industry has become a microcosm of much larger issues.


[update: edited slightly for clarity]


9 thoughts on “Objectivity and Modernism”

  1. This may be out of place. This acknowledgment is probably significant.

    The people attacking Zoe and others have been part of the, let’s say “traditional” gaming community for decades. This community is as you say empathy-deficient but they see this as a strength. They see the empathy as advocated by the SJW community as dogmatic and in many instances illogical and just blatantly factually wrong. They see games as an escape from the every day and part of this escape is being able to indulge in the politically incorrect.

    They see the SJW community as foreigners coming into their community and demanding that they be accommodated, then when the traditional gaming community refuses they are demonised as misogynists.

    I’ve tried to expose myself to both sides of the situation. It seems to me that both sides view each other with similar animosity. Both sides see each other as dogmatic and extremist. One side is misogynistic, the other is irrational. Both sides think the other is in need of psychiatric intervention and both sides see the other as the aggressor and both sides are extremely insensitive to the others plight.

    I see no solution for this disparity of worldviews. The conflict has gone on too long. Both sides seem to believe that they are on the cusp of some kind of undefined victory. Both sides believe that this victory can be achieved with underhanded tactics and highly emotive rhetoric.

    The narrative you portrayed isn’t foreign to me, but I think it misses some important aspects and in some ways it falls victim to some of the points I’ve expressed above. What I’ve written doesn’t capture all the nuance. I just wanted to highlight some of the common threads of thought I’ve observed in each community and some of the more common complaints each has of the other.

      1. Their community is under-fire. They think that the games they love to play are no longer going to be made. They are having an ideology that they don’t believe in, haven’t been convinced of yet or genuinely perceive as destructive forced on them. I called it a plight because of the apparently huge influence SJW ideology has over some of the largest gaming news outlets and forums on the net. These privileged white guys are finally getting a taste of what it is like to be marginalised. Their criticisms are being immediately discredited as one of the many types of misogyny that exist in SJW ideology. Their favourite games are being run through the wringer and being discarded as sexist trash. Many journalist and developers that side with them are forced to apologise or face boycotts and character assassinations. It’s getting to the point that some in the traditional gaming community are talking about going as far as boycotting western developers in favour of Japanese developers who appear immune to SJW influence.

        I could ask you what the plight of SJWs are as well. They have become an imposing force in many parts of the net and their ideology reaches into the real-world in a number of ways. SJW’s have the backing of many high-profile people with a lot of influence and a lot of power. Given all this it might appear to be disingenuous to portray SJW’s as the victims of a plight also.

        What I find most striking about your question is your apparent difficulty in believing that a bunch of white guys could be disempowered. This is an example of the type of thinking that they find so hard to swallow. That no matter what, in all situations a white guy has privilege that others do not. Perhaps this is not your personal view, but it is a seemingly widely accepted view in the SJW community.

  2. John, I don’t think you’re doing yourself any favours by using terms like ‘SJW’. There is no conspiracy out there trashing games that don’t conform to some abstract notion of what a videogame should be — unless we mean the kind of people attacking Depression Quest. There are mostly just people with opinions. On the internet. Shocking, I know.

    As for the ‘backing of many high-profile people with a lot of influence and a lot of power’, this is just silly. If media outlets are increasingly sensitive to gender issues, it is because (1) they don’t want to be seen as bigots and (2) most gamers are in fact female. Alienating your audience so as not to be percieved as NOT bigoted by a section of your audience would be perverse.

    As for white guys being disempowered — well, unfortunately, I don’t have any demographic data for the users of places like 4chan, so I can’t say what the class aspect of this whole thing is (my impression is that most ‘real’ gamers are middle class, but who knows). That said, the idea that anyone could be oppressed by the diversification of their preferred commodity culture will not hold water. This was kind of the point of my post: the fact that people disagree with you and advocate on behalf of their preferred art does not make you oppressed. The feeling that you are somehow victimised by conflicts over the form and content of art, where before there was relative homogeneity, is not a sign of oppression, it is a sign of privilege. Yes, people are increasingly intolerant of intolerance; this does not make the bigots persecuted, it just means that they no longer dominate the discussion.

  3. Is the more appropriate analogy not colonial imperialism? A native people and territory suddenly finds themselves under the interest of a more powerful, organized, (politically) advanced culture that views themselves as inherently better, more rational, more progressive than the immoral, regressive, backwards natives. So backwards their values, culture and complaints aren’t even worth serious consideration (such as through John’s suggested program of mature engagement), they’re just clinging to a reactionary traditionalism. A “muttering class,” “pond scum.”

    Their cultural history before ‘discovery’ itself is devalued… You do know what you’re describing as “an explosion in the quantity and diversity of games and artists” was the /reactionary/ response to the recent heavy commercialization and popular explosion of the industry, right? Considering “formal experimentation” and distinct artistry & diversity were a major presence throughout videogame history up until the late 90s? It was a return to a form, not the invention of it. The contemporary indie movement likes to fashion itself as post-historical but it’s only through marginalizing ‘native’ history – none of it really counted until we came: all bedroom developers before Notch, all I-F experimenters before Twine, all amateur developers before Unity are swept aside as primitive nonsense. Videogame history begun in 1998 and anything else is traditionalism.

    And while it is true that there was little interest in the mainstays of postmodern sociology up until the net 2.0 indie ‘renaissance,’ to consider that demonstrative of barbarity or incipiency is again not any more justified than considering ‘idol worship’ so. It’s a different culture with different interests and values; the only criteria for judging cultural value is hegemony; and it’s clear where that lies in this story…. Just people with opinions on the internet, except when they’re officially evil, backwards, pond scum.

    “I for one absolutely hope that the kind of ugly reactionary nonsense that is built into mainstream games shrivels up and dies post-haste. The salty tears of weeping nerds sustain me… the trolls are simply the ‘last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress’. They may be pathetic, but the denunciations of Viennese modernism were just as shrill.”

    You’re starting to sound like Hitler Himself. So what should we do, Luke? Exterminate them? Is genocide okay if it’s virtual?*

    If virtual genocide means ethnocide – extermination of a culture, philosophy, way of life – then the answer is ‘unabashedly Yes,’ considering it’s the unobscured “ethic of humanism” (Clastres, Of Ethnocide), conveniently exemplified in your post:
    We have discovered what is Good and True and have an imperative to share it with the world, whether they want it or not, for their own good.

    The key difference between genocide and ethnocide is the optimistic belief that the so-called pond scum are not just fundamentally misguided, irrational and /dehumanized/ scum but misguided, irrational /still-human/ scum. They’re not beyond salvation, they can learn how to not be scum if we teach it to them: only their culture needs to be exterminated, not their bodies.

    Wow, Luke, John’s simple trick of looking in the mirror is starting to make you look like a Nazi imperialist troll. What do you have to say to that?

    It bears repeating:
    “The muttering classes” (!)

  4. Ibn, the question of the class composition and social power or vulenerability of ‘gamers’ is an interesting one, but not one I am able to answer here.

    But — and I want be absolutely explicit about this — ‘gamers’ are not being oppressed. The metaphor of colonisation would be a fascinating one — clearly, the re-emergence of gaming into the neon of mainstream consumer culture brings with it expanded scrutiny and commodification — if these poor colonised victims were not themselves the perpetrators of abuse and explusion against some of the most vulnerable people in society. The idea that a handful of female and/or transgender artists and critics living around the poverty line are somehow oppressing gamers but critiquing their manufactured consumer culture is disgusting and absurd.

    You do not — I repeat, not — have the moral right to cast yourself as a racialised Other solely because someone was mean to you on the internet. Your conceptual slide from cross words inspired by acts of abuse to literal genocide is breathtaking. Yes, I want my political views to ‘win’, and I mean to see it happen — but cultural hegemony is not (by itself) even remotely comparable to genocide. Telling people to stop behaving in a way that is abusive is not a form of oppression. If you want to go and stew in your own bile, be my guest. Seriously. Go crazy. So long as you don’t hurt anyone, I wouldn’t dream of wishing you any discomfort. What you can’t stand, Ibn, is that I will not accept your opinions as reputable.

    Finally, your potted history of the industry is evidence of precisely the kind of exclusion you decry. I know full well that the ‘indie’ scenes are drawing on much older and deeper currents, because I, like your invading colonists, happen to have been playing games since way back in the ’90s. Erasing the history of the colonised and denying their relationship with the land are features of colonialism, by the way — it’s an interesting analogy, but you have the relationship backwards.

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