It’s just a story, it’s a matter of taste

In my travels as an internaut I too often come across expressions like “it’s just a story”, “it’s a matter of taste” or “it’s what the artist found within” when a fearless user points out a game’s ideologically objectionable content. It is a good point: no one can tell someone who’s expressing themselves how they should do it. But I don’t think we’re talking about freedom of speech, but rather of one’s accountability over the content they broadcast. The very notion that someone would think a story or a game is something we come up with out of the blue, as a matter of taste, and has no effect on the player beyond a series of emotions, unsettles me quite a bit.

That’s why I’d like to inquire into the fiction we create as humans and into our motivation behind its creation. I’m going to step into territory already labored by philosophy, sociology and aesthetics, and I’m going to recklessly link together different issues taken from those disciplines. I won’t be getting into the academic discussions that arise when speaking about these problematics, but I am taking some of them as tools for building ideas.

Fiction and the homo sapiens

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I’m going to pull a great 2001: A Space Odyssey and skip right to the monkeys (or almost). One thing, if not the main thing, that distinguished homo sapiens from other human species is the capacity to create fiction. We can imagine different worlds that we perceive in the here and now. We can think of utopian futures, dystopias, we can talk about characters we never met in alternative pasts. To our knowledge, no other animal can do that. According to Yuval Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), the homo sapiens, thanks to that capacity, was able to create much larger communities than those of other primates, whose largest groups number in at around 150 individuals. Sapiens don’t need to know every member of the group personally to feel part of it. Instead, religions, flags and other fictions make them feel like they belong in groups formed by millions of people. Therefore, if two people believe in the same story they tell themselves, about who their leader is, their objective, what they expect from their future, then they can feel part of the same community, and so make sure they are working together towards the same cause.

It is believed that thanks to their imagination the sapiens was able to change the world around them on a progressively larger scale, in communities of up to millions of individuals, rebuilding nature according to how they imagined it in their fictions. This they also call prosperity: the feeling that there is progress on the long road towards that world we once imagined. Conflicts arise when other communities tell stories different from ours and we don’t benefit from them. But that’s… another matter.

So, the mechanism is that someone imagined a reality different from the one they saw and transmitted it through fictions that viralized among a certain number of individuals. They began to share a common worldview based on the philosophy of the fiction and this way they built increasingly populous social systems, with different common philosophies in several aspects of society, until they achieved what today is know as a civilization. Without fiction there is no social cohesion.

The stories we tell ourselves

Every person has their own set of stories, their own mythology, what they were told by their parents, what they were told in school, mixed in also with the world as reproduced by the music they listen to, the movies they see, the games they play, the things they buy, the food they eat. Of course when we talk of fiction we’re not just talking about stories. The order of our world is represented by everything around us, nothing created by a human being lacks a “fiction”, that is, a portion of imagination we put forth ourselves. Without getting into endless definitions, cultural creation is in broad strokes just that, communicating our little world to other humans through all possible senses, and if we manage to understand things in the same way, maybe we can collaborate to reach the same material goals, defend the same interests or build the same social order. If you really think about it, this construction we do to ourselves, this fiction we believe in, this little world inside, is our ideology.

The diet of our little world inside

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I could go on using the word “ideology”, but it has so much academic weight and depending on the context it points back to so many different things, that I’d rather use the more relaxing, “little world inside”.

That little word is made of elements we received from reality and to which we internally assigned a value and related to other elements that were there from before. In order to understand a raw element from reality, external to our own, we have to accommodate it in our cosmos. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it pretty? Is it ugly? Does it feel real to me? Is it better than what I know? Does it make me feel superior? Does it put position my community favorably? Does it respond to familiar values? Do I wish to have something like it? Will it bring me happiness? We don’t necessarily ask ourselves these questions consciously, but when we expose ourselves to something they take on a particular order based on the questions our little world answers, the mostly unconscious answers it gives and the other things it relates to.

That order ends up being an interconnected web of feelings, accumulated life experiences and ideas that determine our standards for beauty, ugliness, kindness, evil, truth, prosperity, etc.

The actors of a fiction

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That is our fiction, personal and social, and we are the actors who provoke change according to our possibilities and material limitations.

This little world inside also pokes its head into our taste, directing our daily actions, since we imitate what feels right. From whom we choose as a partner, to how we walk, what brand of bread we buy, what kind of people we add to our social networks, the music we make and purchase, the dances we imitate, the acceptance or rejection of a dish from another culture, the skin color of whom we hire. Our ideology materialized in our taste. The actions we take reproduce our interior order upon external reality.

On a large scale

Naturally, we also want to share our internal order with the rest of society, we want to have a common perspective so that, as we said at the beginning, action by action it propagates and builds the world we wish to live in (even though others might not be benefit from that perspective). In the long term and on a large scale, the million decisions we make, whether they seem transcendental or not, once together, make our life the way it is. And we, among the millions that we are, make the world the way it is. Tastes, the fictions of each and every person, as we describe them here, when in massive proportions, can trigger actions of a grand scale,  like validating a war, rejecting racism, preferring order over freedom, considering technology a savior from our ecological problems, supporting a religion economically, legitimizing an authority or dedicating resources to exploring other planets.

We’re circling on the idea of the “social imaginary”. I’m not going to deal with any author specifically (maybe), even though we may know that colorful variations exist.

The cultural actors

All these major issues tend to be represented to different extents and proportions in every cultural production, in everything that surrounds us. It is art and design (of stories, images, mechanics, buildings) that are responsible for this. A person, in their daily life, in their talks, in what they wear, etc., reproduces a system, and yet, the discourse of a designer or an artist as a cultural actor potentially reaches a much larger public, if not a massive one. A designer’s role is creating that social imaginary. That makes them responsible for what they transmit, since, as we are saying, everything that comes from that little world inside ends up having some effect on the material world. Can the design of a lamp support a military regime? It sounds absurd phrased that way, but it’s through the critique, through the interpretation of the symbols and the context in which the lamp was created that we can find meaning (hermeneutics, among other disciplines, dedicates itself to that purpose). Does it sound more plausible that a school’s architectural design would institutionalize repression through the Panopticon? Or that a comedy show legitimizes a military dictatorship through “innocent” stories? Or that a movie utilizes skin color as the main characteristic of a monster and fosters racism? I often find that these considerations are treated as if they were setting down an agenda, but there is no work that doesn’t have a social imaginary, from the paintings of Piet Mondrian to the cover of Doom, or a game from a jam. The labor of recognition lies in interpreting the symbols in the world in which  they were created.

Someone behind these works is responsible for the content. Is it just a story? Did it simply just occur to the artist? Is there no more to say?

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Innocence in videogames

Everything I’ve written up till this point was to develop a common ground, because we each have our own ideas about the meaning of culture, taste and the impact of a work. Now I’m interested in focusing specifically on videogames.

Throughout history, many artists that lived under dictatorships were investigated for the content of their work, and, facing the possibility of being sentenced, they answered with elusive phrases such as, “it’s just a story” or “it’s a matter of taste”, at the risk of their freedom being restricted. However, it’s much more common in the field of videogames to hear these same phrases used in the most naive way possible, as if videogames were totally disconnected from our reality, and that what we make just occurs to us out of nowhere. In this way, a bubble is built that tries to keep videogames in a state of adolescent innocence where only “pop for fun” is made. Sometimes, in spite of the bubble, games turn out to have very interesting content, but often they’re the material and ideological copy of other games.

The feeling of censorship

The moment someone thinks to link a work of fiction (a videogame in this case) with the reality it’s constructing in its representations — with the idea it’s viralizing — frictions tend to arise in relation to the artist’s freedom to say whatever they want without being “forced” to change anything, suggesting that they are being censored. I agree that one shouldn’t tell someone else what it is they have to think or how it is they have to create their work, that would indeed be an attempt at censorship. Criticism should not be focused on that, but rather on interpreting the work’s symbols within the context in which it was created. If the critic finds it reprehensible, they are fully in their right to condemn it, and the creator can choose whether to listen to them or not. Yet, when we find ourselves among creators who don’t reflect upon what they’re saying with their work, criticism sometimes covers not only the piece but also the immaturity with which these creators carry out their cultural role. They cover that there is no reflection upon the reasons why they made the choices they did in the creation of their work: Why do I choose these types of characters? Why do they have to collect coins? Why are the bosses always overweight? Why are latinos represented in relation with illegal businesses? Why do enemy combatants have eastern features?

There also isn’t a consciousness that we’re reproducing a philosophy that applies to the world we live in.

Maturing through criticism

When someone sees that game about the space war for liberty and points out that its ideology is suspect, that’s not censorship of its contents but rather a criticism of the notorious lack of questioning of them. It arises more from the copying and naturalization of other works than from reflection and encourages the players to do the same. The social imaginary it builds is that of leaving things as they are, using fiction as amusement, diluting any sort of change, social progress or treatment of community conflicts. This is what humans used fiction for, to imagine and, through fantasy, reflect upon worlds with different philosophies. And in this age of mass media, fictions are also used as propaganda for the status quo and to uphold the system such as it is.

This is one of the central reasons why we produce Matajuegos, to try to connect videogames with people, to analyze their contents not only as entertainment or for their formal or technical aspects, but rather for what they say, for what we interpret, what they leave with us. The content is not inscrutable, it’s time for those of us who make up this little world of videogame to take responsibility and to mature not only in our language, but also in our criticism of what we say. Up until now the resistance to maturing has been strong from many creators and consumers, stronger still than in other mediums with more history. Reflecting is a good antidote – reflecting on why we make the things we make, why we say what we say, where our tastes come from. “It’s just a story,” is what they’re hoping we’ll say.

Translated from Spanish by David T. Marchand and Pablo F. Quarta

Santiago J. Franzani

About Santiago J. Franzani

Makes interactive stuff under the name of Antennaria. A friend of graphic adventures, maker of absurd animations, lover of discussions leading nowhere. His mission is to smuggle surrealism to the confines of the Internet.