a response to pol clarissou's discourse about discourse
(sorry for the call-and-response format, it's a bit rigid at the beginning but i don't really feel like organizing it more fluidly...i think it gets better as the post goes on.)
"While "All Art Is Political" is a catchy slogan, i am not convinced of its utility as a framework. All culture is embedded with ideology - but that is not to say that it always articulates a coherent political project. To say "art is always political" is to suggest that all choices made in the creation process are political statements"
this jumps out at me as an utter misunderstanding of what "all art is political" means. saying "art is political" is not the same thing as saying "everything in it is an intentional political statement." saying "all art is political" is pointing to how art cannot be divorced from the world, from ideology and value systems, that even a game that does not seem to be making any kind of political statement (whether it be cod, a free rpgmaker horror game, or yes, animal crossing) is making political statements about what's important, about what subjects we should care about, etc. how someone reads political statements into these games is a different story entirely—i'm not advocating for readings of animal crossing as "radical praxis" any more than pol is. but politics isn't just something you put into art, it's embedded in the art already.
"This isn't to say noone should set out to deliver political teachings through the medium of games - like all media games can be a fertile tool to educate, articulate, mobilize etc. But such political games should generally be political from the get go, with a clear articulation of how the form and the political content respond to each other; and they should also be cognizant of the production and distribution systems they fit into (more on that below). If your motive and expertise lie in 2D platformers with a mechanical gimmick, i think it's good to remain cold-headed about your motivations for that and the scope of your work."
again, this logic rests on this incoherent idea of politics just being something that you "inject" into your game. i don't disagree with the next line about being cognizant of production and distribution systems, but the last part, suggesting that a 2D platformer can't be or is inherently limited as a "political work" is ??? bizarre to me. like, telling a person making a platformer that it's pointless or inefficacious for them to include political themes in it...so they just...shouldn't?
"I think this guilt is felt with particular intensity because of the paradigm of the neoliberal subject that we're all confronted to in the indie games hustle circuit:
Your work, your hobbies and interests, your passion, your leisure, your expertise, your body, your upbringings, your trauma, your idiosyncrasies, your interpersonal bonds should all overlap into one singular self identity, which becomes a brand. All your aspirations, political or otherwise, then become externalities to retrofit into your brand - your brand is gamedev but you want to fight climate change, hence you shoehorn climate struggle into the marios."" "A lot of us right now feel a sense of political urgency because we’re in a time of global crisis. We want to do something, but what we know how to do is make pixels move on a computer screen. Within this individualistic framework of selfhood we're simmering in, collective avenues of direct political action are obfuscated in favor of the fantasy of making a change through your work as an individual within the existing system."
this whole section really bothered me because it feels like such an aggressive projection of the author's own subjectivity and neuroses onto everyone else. it's so disingenuous to imply that the existence of politics, explicit or implicit, in a work of art are probably the result of a neoliberal guilt complex that pressures one into fitting one's identity and experiences into one's art. it wrongly assumes that the existence of political content in art is evidence that the artist is attempting to "do their politics thru art," and therefore something to be discouraged and reacted against. but if political statements exist in my art, it's only because i exist in the world, i'm communicating aspects of my feelings and experience(s) in my art, and those feelings and experiences are inseparable from what disinterested people refer to as "politics." and just because i or any other marginalized person makes art about my experiences and thoughts doesn't mean i prize art as the only or best place for political action.
i make art because i want to, whether it's doodling or writing or yeah making a game, whether i put it out on itch for free or just show it to my friends, i make art like i breathe and eat and speak. i make art bc i want to communicate with other people through it. and that art will necessarily contain strands of anti-imperialism, a desire to attack carceral logic and the hegemony of whiteness, because that's how i feel and think, not because i'm guiltily shoehorning it into my otherwise politically neutral game.
"On the other hand, some will argue that a true radical game cannot be made through capitalist production processes (arguably true), and therefore call for gamedevs to make truly radical games: with no funding, with no IP/fully open source, not sold on the market. Such morality calls directed at people who make a living by selling games and also intend for people to play their games and have built a sense of their craft among a community of peers that is inseparable from the market are trite nonsense (imo!), and themselves a form of DISCOURSE that is more concerned with abstract morality posturing than the articulation of a political project with concrete impact and actionable steps.
What's more, it might in fact lead to less active political engagement if playing these 'political experiences' becomes a relief mechanism to people with an oppressor complex (playing queer games as the start and end point of cishet allyship to queer struggle, or somesuch)."
being in various circles of hobbyist game writers/makers who work outside the industry, i've never heard anyone talk about or care about this dream of a "truly radical game," let alone think that such a pursuit is tantamount to or more important than direct political action etc. it feels like this is a bad-faith attack against somebodies who don't exist, a group of hermetic ethical purity fetishists who deride any games that are tainted by the dollar and only see art along a rigid axis of "most radical <-> least radical."
the last sentence of this paragraph is honestly bizarre to read. "politically speaking, queer games might have a net-negative impact, because cishet allies have their cishet guilt assuaged by them and are less likely to do anything irl." like holy shit, what? this feels like some weird mental gymnastics just to justify undercutting the perceived "holier-than-thouness" of freeware/itch game/whatever types who, god forbid, are secretly trying to shame everyone into becoming freeware devs. (and like, queer games by whom? sold where? in what sense are they "queer"? just eliding a lot of questions that this discourse is supposed to be centering.)
what i really can't wrap my head around is, this piece spends a lot of time talking about how superficial political markers like "tlou2 good queer rep" in a game are meaningless and don't say anything about the material fact of the game and its production/distribution, which should be key to understanding anything like the political nature/impact of these games (i do not disagree). but then when someone stands up and says okay well i will make and disseminate art outside of these violent unethical conditions of abuse and exploitation, and with less of a negative environmental impact, suddenly you're just posturing or larping or whatever.
it feels like freeware devs/those outside of the industry are treated as an afterthought here, and need be because this piece is mostly focused toward "all of us in the indie game circuit." not to be too ungenerous, but i feel like this limitation also limits pol's ability to speak coherently about and imagine practices/visions of art-making that go beyond his cynical psycho-analyzing of other aa/professional indie devs. it outright erases the feelings and works of people who don't fit this "(white) bourgeois guilt as motivation" framework, or dismisses them because they're not doing anything either, in his own terms.
honestly, this whole post reads to me like someone who played a game like even the ocean by analgesic studios (a 2d platformer explicitly about the relations between oppressive structures and climate crisis, among other things) and their takeaway was "argh! but this isn't actually mobilizing anyone to organize against the climate crisis! and it was sold on steam! this is useless!!" as if that was the intent of the devs in the first place, as if they woke up and said "hm today i will arbitrarily inject ecological themes into my game, in hopes that it will organize the masses, and that will be the extent of all my political contributions." subsuming the artmaker's work and intentions and goals into your own limited framework...assessing the "political efficacy" (or rather, failure) of their project based on the terms you set.
"i think it is important to ask the question of whether making a given game or art piece with a political message is the most impactful way one can participate to the struggle, and whether it will effect meaningful change or simply act as a pacifying agent for a privileged class with a guilt complex."
the extent to which this piece centers the feelings of the "privileged class" is really mind-boggling. actually no it's not.
regardless, it feels absurd to suggest that one shouldn't make political art when one could be protesting in the streets instead or organizing xyz. like, as if art isn't a practice or hobby or job that people are going to be doing all the time anyway regardless. i'm gonna keep making art just like i'm gonna be doing anything in my free time to relax or process my feelings, or whatever the fuck. and the gears of indie game production are gonna keep turning so long as people stay at their jobs to make a living while capitalism exists, so what's it accomplish to tell people to not "shoehorn" politics into their work?
it's not just about telling people to divest from "putting politics into their games"...it's about divesting from the whole thing.
i'm as annoyed as the next person about the superficial political gestures of aa/aaa. and of course, it's important to talk not just about a game's themes/messaging but also its material production and distribution, and to be critical of how art's superficial messaging can distract from the violences of the system that produce it, disseminate it, and structure the discourse around it. art is a form of communication, and we should always look at not only what's being communicated but how, to whom, to what end.
where i disagree is in the jump from that to "stop shoehorning politics into mario." i don't think the latter is a coherent leftist message. in fact it kind of stumbles ass-backward and somehow falls neatly into a reactionary talking point (and the fact that that didn't give some people more pause is...concerning). i think that statement, and the infinite ways it can be appropriated and mobilized to reactionary ends, are more harmful than the asserted sanctimony of people working outside the industry.
in sum, to be able to make a statement like "stop shoehorning politics into mario" hinges on some combination of willfully ignoring other people's art-making motivations and practices, a centering of professional gamedev and its liberal audiences as the sites of political progress/failure, and what seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means for art to be political in the first place.