Theorypunk: Get It While Supplies Last

“In a world in which the subject has become a stranger to its [sic] labor, we use experience to incite awareness of the alienation in which one lives.”  -Lygia Clark, Nostalgia of the Body: “We Refuse…”, 1965

First, I know that nothing here will last.

Lygia Clark, an artist whose work might have fallen into the categories of “performance” or “installation” or “communicational”—yet manages to defy any singular genre specification—would have made a fantastic game designer had that option been available to her. Her work was highly experiential and participatory, the “pieces” not the objects of play themselves but the interaction that emerged between the “spectator-author” and the work. A dialogue took place between participant and artist, where the roles would switch, where the artist would give up a little of herself so that the participant might assert themself in the interaction taking place. Clark places much importance on the “act”, on the “instant”, on verbs rather than nouns. On people rather than objects.

Nostalgia of the Body is a posthumous collection by friend and peer Yves-Alain Bois of Clark’s writing about her work and the guiding philosophy of the short-lived (1959-1961) Neo-Concretist movement of which she was a founding member. The Neo-Concretists, like the Dadaists before them, were responding to what they saw in more “geometric” or “concrete” art styles (Constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, and so on) and in the hallowed institutions of the arts an alienation from human affective experience and from common people. Unlike the Dadaists, however, the Neo-Concretists weren’t interested in revolutionizing the art object. Instead, they aimed to undermine the importance of the “objet d’art” entirely, using their media only as conduits for interactive, participatory experience.

The Neo-Concretists rebuked the pretense at “objectivity”—a perfect, Platonic formalism—found in the rhetoric around these styles which Clark historically aligns with advances in hard sciences and mechanical reproduction. With that came an emphasis on automation, depersonalization, rationalism, and a sidelining of things like meaning, interpretation, personal introspection and emotional exploration. The arts, too desperate for competitive relevance in the 20th century, Clark laments, had become too risk-averse, “hypertrophied” in its postures, and needed a radical upheaval in order to address those who didn’t fit inside its establishment.

That being said.

I don’t want to rehash the substance—if you can call it that—of a so-called “debate” that my peers and I recently had the misfortune of accidentally walking into, although you can read our collective take on things in this piece by Austin Howe. But I can’t help but read Nostalgia of the Body and get a pang of existential anxiety. Does history ever repeat itself.

It’s been the case for at least a century—and I can even think of older examples—that cultural movements die out quickly. And ideas seem to be dying out at an ever-accelerating rate. We burn fast now, quicker than when Clark was doing her work. We run on young blood; we mine it like an endless resource that doesn’t need replenishing, reinvestment. Exploitative practices need changing, sustainability needs to be a long-term goal. But if longevity alone were my concern here, I should have given up already. I’m more interested in impact.

I’ve sort of made peace with the fact that social movements aren’t meant to survive. Either they succeed and there’s no need for them anymore, or they fail and disband, leaving over a residue of influence. Sometimes there’s a hot enough core that the impact explodes and disperses into newer movements, each influencing the culture in some small way. That’s why I’m ok with a term like “theorypunk”.

Theorypunk is an accumulation of intellectual, political, and historical efforts to produce critical work which is both openly democratic and deeply engaged with its subject matter. It posits the simple provocation that thought ought to precede prestige or institutional credential. It is the radical provocation that a diversity of thinkers and ideas must be supported within games so as to wrest from the powerful what games can be and who is allowed to participate in their discourse. And we know that this will not happen through the usual channels of the recognized gaming press first, if ever.

Theorypunk is also kind of a joke, to be perfectly honest. Zolani Stewart came up with the portmanteau to put a facetious, fun name to the kind of alternative critical work that he, myself and others have been doing in games writing for some time now. That isn’t to say that alternative writing didn’t exist before—certainly it did—but the name is meant to imply a certain attitude and outlook. We’re for writing which is deep, researched when necessary, but also fairly accessible. One of the upshots of the digital age is the ubiquity of all sorts of archived information. But those of us with some insight into how to read and catalogue that information have some responsibility to communicate what we know to others, to cut through the noise, to allow a diversity of ideas to spread, be challenged, die, revive, evolve. To allow those who have been left out of intellectual spaces to actually participate meaningfully, to put their rigour to the test, and to help build a growing body of in-depth critical work about games.

As Liz Ryerson writes in her piece, “Embrace The New Flesh”,

“we need to look at media with a more critical, but also empathetic eye. […] because when we don’t, not only is the end result co-option and re-entrenchment, but the end result is violence against those who openly resist this ideology, both in the metaphorical and literal sense, because the end result of adopting patriarchal and colonialist worldviews is always violence acted out on the bodies of the marginalized and powerless.”

Healthy criticism is an antidote for propaganda, which corporate games media is steeped in from its marketing buzzwords to its cultural output, to the ways it reinforces through its works the exclusion and devaluation of certain identities and bodies, to how it narrativizes neoliberalism and the myth of meritocracy in the very fabric of its works, to how it aids the state in committing economic and social violence, to how it conceals the extremity of its own long history of labour abuses both in the creative and manufacturing sectors. The system abhors dedicated investigation and interrogation.

Theorypunk requires that the people who consume media are potentially more than just the recipients in a pipeline of information, to be manipulated and exploited by those feeding them specially-crafted narratives. People can and do question those narratives, can and do influence their cultural conditions with what agency they might have, can and do contribute back with challenging creative and intellectual work which is unafraid to engage sensitively and thoughtfully with the uncomfortable or the unusual, or simply address issues which have been sorely neglected and bring them to the forefront. The games industry and its press has for too long expected people to be nothing more than smart marks, superficially assessing the consumption value of games as products and cultural issues as relatively contained, isolated phenomena that’s easy to sell off piecemeal in a zeitgeist. Theorypunk is a silly-as-hell word, but it does propose some real alternatives to this model, and it asserts very strongly that people who do this work ought to be valued for it.

An economy must be built.

Theorypunk as a set of ideas is well-situated within “altgames”, formulated and propagated by that same collective of peers of which I’m a member. tj thomas, in his IndieCade East 2015 talk explaining the ideology behind “altgames”, writes:

“where ‘indie’ focuses on promotion, getting on Steam, and making it big, altgames focuses on just being alive and keeping bills paid while continuing to create the best work that you can. for me, it does not describe a genre of games, or an aesthetic that a game has—although i’m not saying it can’t, and i’ve definitely said “wow this looks so altgames” in a totally genuine way—yes, you can hate me; it focuses on the artists, the people who are making these works for you to consume. altgames is about keeping the artist, OR artists, alive and allowing them to make their art.

frankly, as long as my rent’s paid and i have food to eat semi-regularly, i’m good. i’m not a person aiming for fortune (anymore), and if i were, it would be for the intention of redistributing the funds to other altartists. “rentpunk,” another similar ideology that came out in 2014, carries that similar air of “yo let’s make some hella cool shit, but also, let’s not get evicted from our homes” and strong community banding that’s necessary for any of these movements to thrive. when more and more members of the community are able to sustain themselves, and distribute their extra into those who are not, ultimately everyone gets brought up a level. everyone in the movement gets stronger, everyone becomes closer together, and people are able to rally up and unionize against the oppressive and manipulative nature of mainstream games scenes. some might argue that the very idea of altgames being a new, smaller, more tight-knit community is [sic] closeminded or clique-ish, or a bunch of people who are friends just hanging out or whatever, but that’s how basically everything starts out. it’s extremely rare that people assemble companies, movements, what have you, without some kind of contributions coming from their friends. people generally become friends because they like each other, or have similar ideologies that help them relate to each other more. when you relate, you cooperate, and when you cooperate, you create, and when you create, the movement begins.”

thomas points very clearly and instructively to some approaches that those of us working under the altgames banner use in the hopes of achieving some relatively modest goals. He uses another neologism, “rentpunk”, coined by developer Katrina Elisse, which lays out the objective: that people can make their art without impoverishing themselves as a necessity. To make it worth it. Not to promise windfall riches and fame for every developer of weird games, but to instead propose that doing experimental development is real labour which demands real compensation, and that people who do it shouldn’t have to fear destitution or compromise.

This proposition is multi-pronged. thomas covers the need for new distribution platforms which support experimental games development (the most notable current example being, for which thomas does site moderation work), curation (e.g. Forest Ambassador, Critical Distance, Warp Door, @SupportAltGames), conscious reinvestment into alternative work as an act of public good, and the proliferation of alternative press.

This press exists already. We have sites like Haywire and Midnight Resistance, independently run blogs—a word I’m still loathe to use in reference to myself but mostly because it implies a certain lack of legitimacy, and as a “punk” I should really get the fuck over that—and magazines like The Arcade Review, Memory Insufficient,  ZEAL and Five Out of Ten, all attempting to create a foundation and a history for accessible, inclusive, substantive writing on games big and small (and most of which I do or have written for). In terms of broadcast, there’s been a surge of critical Let’s Play videos by Zolani Stewart, Heather Alexandra and Amy Dentata to name a few—and that’s not even mentioning the growing pool of critical podcasts (Abnormal Mapping, Justice Points, Indie Megacast, and yours truly) and the audio essays Stewart and Howe do with Critical Switch. There are even plans for altgames-centric conferences, arguably starting with last year’s Indie3—conceptualized by thomas and organized in a matter of days—and Critical Proximity founded by Zoya Street.

Some of us use subscriptions to fund these efforts. Many of us use crowdfunding, the most immediately available tool, but not as an end in itself. Sustainability requires a circulating flow of resources. I need to use this money not just to support my labour, but to reinvest in the labour of works I wish to see succeed. I need to remain very aware of the alienation from labour in which we live, in which games-as-things exist.

Of course we owe a debt to entities and traditions founded under the auspices of movements like indie and queer games. We owe a debt for things like IndieCade, and for sites like The Border House and Nightmare Mode, not to mention the diffusion of Twine as an accessible development tool. It’s not as if there’s no history, but it has to be remembered and reclaimed. The infrastructure is missing, things are falling away. And this shit is not going to build itself on nice ideas or “passion” alone.

We need money. We need support. We need resources. And we need a collective effort and will to build something that will outlast us.

I admit, though, that both “theory” and “punk”, on their own and quite probably together, imply some uncomfortable flaws despite my idealism. One of Lygia Clark’s main concerns was the art establishment’s overemphasis of cold “theory” over the sometimes indefinable quality of human experience and feeling. I want to be very clear, and very careful, when I throw a word like “theory” around, then. I think there’s nothing wrong with declaring a preferred framework or set of frameworks through which to perceive and discuss art, politics, life. But this structure needs to be solid enough to be serviceable without being so rigid that it mutilates or obliterates any information that doesn’t fit neatly inside of it. The ability to engage in theory, in theories, must be adjustable to a multiplicity of thought, perceptions and experiences that make up reality. This isn’t to imply some equivocation: not all theories are valid. The ones perpetuated in games-as-propaganda are actively harmful as models for social and political life. We must be able to test and discard theories which don’t work practically, which are deleterious to people’s well-being. We must avoid a stringent orthodoxy. We must advocate for a discourse which is respectful, empathetic, compassionate, thoughtful, but also polymorphous and challenging and flexible and alive.

It’s for this reason that the democratic, proletarian, revolutionary and do-it-yourself flavour of “punk” provides a useful complement. With the attitude of punk comes both an optimism toward the potential for self-empowerment with an in-built, fatalistic understanding that this will not last. I admit versions of the ideology can venture into strange realms of anti-intellectualism, libertarianism and even, at their most perverted, fascism, but at least when I make use of punk’s better values I have the benefit of hindsight to help avoid those pitfalls.

I bring this up because I was recently confronted with the criticism that “punk” as an artistic and political movement largely failed, sold out, what-have-you, by a respected peer after I had given a talk on the subject at my old alma mater (very un-punk, I know). While this is ostensibly true, I think it helps to remember the chorus from Richard Hell and The Voidoids’ “Blank Generation”:

I belong to the blank generation and

I can take it or leave it each time

I belong to the ______ generation but

I can take it or leave it each time

Punk in and of itself is a sort of vapid brand term now (yet a variety of sub-movements persist!). But I don’t think that means the ideas in punk had no positive, lasting impact. It was begotten from the material conditions and political climate of the late 1960s and ‘70s, but also on the shoulders of things like Dadaism and Neo-Concretism which influenced the Beat generation among others. Punk didn’t lick these ideas off the ground, and while it and preceding movements are no longer en vogue, the ideas haven’t really gone away.

Theorypunk is at the outset a funny term, like “altgames”, which is suitably descriptive for the time being. It was begotten from the material and political conditions of the digital age, of the social and economic climate in games but also more broadly in the neoliberal west. It also owes itself to the trail blazed by earlier indie, experimental, and queer games movements. All of these things shift, change, die, but they add up. The ideas they leave behind have a life of their own. I know which parts of, say, Dada or punk I would like to retain—the spirit of DIY and self-expression, the openness to new and unusual processes, material and abstraction. I also know that even the most radical ideas can become mainstream, and that this antagonism is totally unsustainable. There is no “working outside the system” even if we work adjacent to or opposed to existing major establishments. It’s vitally important to have people like Chris Priestman writing about small, experimental games at Kill Screen or Austin Walker writing about retail games in an alternative way for Paste. I have to be realistic about this—my aim should not be one of a particular status for myself or my friends, a certain egotism of artistic purity. I need to sully myself with capital and its processes very consciously, very deliberately, to build that economy for the widest swath of people working in it. (By the same token, I reject from Neo-Concretism a tendency toward a universalism of “human feeling”, an ideology which rejects the granular and the local, the importance of past experience and particularity of individual experience. A balance must be struck here in order to respect the differences people bring to bear on the community).

I can’t get too attached.

Success of these ideas means a rejection of the terms we currently use to describe them. Altgames will simply become “games.” Theorypunk is simply being used to describe this ideology of alt-criticism. But these things are guiding lights right now.

If as a movement this succeeds, building some pocket of sustainability against the ever-consuming machinery of white supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalism, for whatever time we have left, then we’ll have to move on and adapt to new concerns.

If as a movement we fail and disband, or if our ideas “hypertrophy” and become stale, that doesn’t mean we’ll have left nothing behind. Those pieces can be picked up by a new generation who can learn from our mistakes which will be laid bare, which can be taken or left each time.