Be the Bob


“All it takes is just a little change of perspective and you begin to see a whole new world.” -Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting

The much-reported Twitch stream marathon of legendary PBS show, The Joy of Painting, introduced the perm, dulcet tones and painting expertise of Bob Ross to a new and perhaps unlikely generation for 8 beautiful days this past fall. The marathon, kicked off on October 29th to commemorate the late artist’s birthday, caused a delightedly bemused stir—most notably on Twitter—due to the apparent dissonance of content and medium: what was this gentle, slow-paced show about learning how to paint landscapes doing on a rough, rowdy gamer hub like Twitch? The two seemed mismatched, and on surface inspection Ross’s soft-spoken positivity clashed with the meme-mongering and trollish, performatively ironic affectation that typifies much of the site’s chat culture. But the event was a huge success, garnering over 4 million total views, nearly five-hundred-thousand followers and press coverage from a range of outlets, including Ars Technica, CBC and Entertainment Weekly.

The event was so successful, in fact, that Bill Morrierhead of Twitch Creativeput up a post this November announcing a Monday night timeslot dedicated to streaming the show on the BobRoss channel, as well as an all-episode stream marathon once every October. (We’ll see how interest holds for the channel’s follower community beyond the veil of irony and in-jokes, especially once they’ve seen the same episodes a handful of times.)

That being said, there is an attitude underlying much of the discourse here that views the event as somewhat frivolous, securely isolating Ross and his show as known memes unto themselves. Perhaps this is because of nature of Internet culture and because the show seems something of a relic of a specific era, but I don’t think that gaming and maker culture in general must interpret this as a diversion and deflect with humour. Rather, I think the irreverence of the stream reveals something deeply needed and wanted in these overlapping communities, and which I think it’s very possible for them to have.

It speaks volumes to me that Twitter accounts which sprung up around the Twitch event, like @BobRossGameDev, @FGC_Bob_Ross and @BobRossEsports, espouse an attitude around development and programming that to many appeared to come off as bizarrely refreshing, curious and irreverent. Our nervous laughter at their feigned (or was it?) earnestness toward the process of creation revealed so much about our assumptions regarding expected attitudes and cultural practices within those fields. The idea of a game design authority telling us repeatedly to relax, to have confidence in our ability, to slow down and take it all in, and to not work ourselves to death because we’re all just so driven and passionate, is still unusual and perennially lovely.

But that’s exactly why I think it’s a mistake that we shrug this all off as some cute, funny diversion. If the Bob Ross attitude toward creativity is something which encourages and invigorates us to realize our visions, we have every reason to want to seriously model it.

Some may contend that Bob Ross is not someone to emulate, because his artwork was and is not respected by the academy, or because his impressionist landscape style was hokey and passé, or because his pieces do not fetch a high price at art markets. You can hold those values if you like, but that’s a miserable way to go about ascribing value to something. I also couldn’t be moved by whether or not you’re an actual fan of his paintings. Either like his work or don’t, but at least give credit where it’s due.

Ross was able to democratize painting in a way that no one else before him was able to do. His true art was in his ability to take advantage of mass telecommunication in order to demonstrate skills and techniques which, at the time, would have been largely only accessible in a classroom. Now an average person, who perhaps didn’t have the time or the means to go to art school, could learn some simple tricks to realize a personal vision in their own home. And did they ever! During its reign, The Joy of Painting encouraged hundreds of people from all sorts of backgrounds to paint, some of whom ended up with exhibitions of their own, and many of whom were lovingly celebrated on the show. When an 90-year-old retiree or 10-year-old kid sent in a landscape inspired by his teachings, Ross beamed with unadulterated joy and often shared the piece with his viewers. There’s such a thrill in the idea that he was really making an impact on people, even watching it years after the fact on a streaming service.

Even the typically-unsympathetic Twitch chat could not help but be moved. That was something to watch as well. For all the tired “Ruined!/Saved!” memes (whenever Ross turned a single dark stroke across the canvas into a beautiful tree, for example), all the crass reminders of Ross’s fatal illness or out-of-left-field reactionary jokes, the chat experienced plenty of moments of emotional authenticity. There was evident awe in witnessing his accomplishments, heart-warming joy at being invited into aspects of his life, and palpable sadness as the streaming event, and the series, closed in on its end. At various points, I spotted individuals desolately counting down the time until the ultimate finale. Despite itself, one of the more hostile commentariats on the internet couldn’t help but be softened by Ross’s infectious enthusiasm.

Traditionalist as Ross may have been when it came to painting, he was able to harness the power of television to empower people to create in a novel, unique way. I must admit my opinion differs from Ross’s on matters of abstraction and modern art, but where we meet again (and where the academy and art market still fail to really deliver) is in the idea that art can be for everyone. It follows that games can be for everyone, too. I like to think that isn’t just a belly-warming platitude.

There are a few encouraging examples of communities and individual endeavours built on guidance and positive reinforcement, either with regard to learning specific tools or toward the understanding of more general skills. The Twine community, via Glorious Trainwrecks and elsewhere, is consistently patient and helpful, as is the Construct 2 community. Zoe Quinn’s Sortingh.at is a great repository of tools and tips for anyone looking to get into game development, but is unsure of where to start. Caelyn Sandel’s Asset Basket made it easy for devs to share their fair-use assets with attribution, including things like sprites, sound effects, libraries and so on. For 3D games, Ko-op Mode’s G.P. Lackey and Bronson Zgeb have helpfully put together this Unity tutorial, which is particularly useful for people who are not well-versed in programming. And those seeking a video guide in the spirit of The Joy of Painting may appreciate DIY MMO, a Youtube series by Kitsune Games developer Emma “Eniko” Maassen. Over the course of the ongoing series, she walks the viewer through building an MMO, piece-by-piece, while pleasant music plays in the background.

I should be clear, however, that I don’t mean to espouse a kind of vacuous, forced enthusiasm. It certainly doesn’t mean we never challenge ourselves or each other. Any compulsion to pretend at happiness for the sake of others’ comfortor worse, compassion and empathyempties out any genuine desire to be kind, and rather than stave off the cynicism, resentment and nihilism of so much Internet culture, serves instead to amplify them.

It’s important to be honest, and to give others room to safely feel whatever they must feel, and I would hate for that to be confounded with what is ultimately a call for more positive reinforcement. This isn’t an attempt to try to compel anyone toward one acceptable form of expression, creative or emotional. All the examples I cited above, like The Joy of Painting, only kindly gesture toward tools and techniques. They convey patience with the new rather than contempt or ridicule, a willingness to answer questions rather than enforce an individualist “grinding” method for learning, and the open-mindedness to accommodate anyone from hobbyists and novices to professional artists. Perhaps to make this attitude the norm, we must revolutionize the way we make and consume games in the first place. On the other hand, perhaps this revolution can be fought for on many fronts, and can include discreet efforts to make programming and game design skills feel less gated and alienating. It’s not just about lowering the barrier to entry for these skills in order to entice people, but creating welcoming, communicative, relatively accommodating learning and work environments in which people feel valued and empowered to keep trying.

It’s also for this reason that, as much as I admire the late painter and his show, I want to resist the forming of a too-ardent cult of personality around him. That would only mystify him and make his work feel more distant, which to me seems counter to the purpose of streaming the show freely on Twitch or Youtube, or for that matter airing it on public television. This isn’t purely altruistic on the part of BobRoss Inc. and film distribution company Janson Media, of course; there’s a link to a shop full of branded Bob Ross painting products in the channel’s description. There is clearly a desire to capitalize somewhat on Bob Ross’s likeness, and while I encourage the idea of Twitch denizens painting along with the show, that image branding is something to be conscious of.

The most valuable things Bob Ross left us, perhaps much more than his actual paintings, were his compassionate attitude toward teaching art and his willingness to go outside the confines of the academy to reach as many people as he could. These are genuine things to stand for, and they can be stood for collectively. We don’t just have to ask “What would Bob do?” and wait for his sermon every Monday night; we have the opportunity, and I think the moral imperative, to spread the joy of game-making ourselves.

This is, after all, our world. We can do anything we want to do.

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