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Welcome to 2084: Age of Overload Aesthetics

Publikuojame dar vieną įdomų Thomas Bey-William Bailey straipsnį, kuriame jis nagrinėja orvelišką kompiuterinių žaidimų ir tikrovės sampratą.

Thomas Bey-William Bailey
2012 m. Kovo 26 d., 18:34
Skaityta: 981 k.
Robotron 2084
Robotron 2084

I. Perplexity As Entertainment

In George Orwells' 1984, the citizens of Oceania are encouraged to show their contempt for mortal enemy Emmanuel Goldstein during the "Two Minutes Hate": while watching telescreen imagery of their foe along with a soundtrack of "some monstrous machine running without oil," they become whipped into a murderous frenzy, and often attack the telescreen, until Big Brother is depicted onscreen as finally winning the day. Unsurprisingly, the storyline of 1984 provided partial inspiration to Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, the designers of the 1982 coin-operated arcade game Robotron 2084. Their brainchild, more so than any other electronic game on the market at that time, seemed to radiate focused hatred out of its cathode ray tube, to which its players responded in kind: its sadistic level of difficulty made the borderline between work and play a fuzzy one indeed. As in Wells' "Two Minutes Hate," players were often so incensed by their failures to advance in the game, that physically attacking the game console was not uncommon. For novices, receiving Two Minutes Of Hate in exchange for their twenty-five cents would actually be generous: given the odds stacked against them, individual games could last half of that time. Yet, for all of its nurturing of irrational anger - to say nothing of hopelessness and panic - a Robotron console could be found in just about any 1980s video arcade that had its finger on the pulse of suburban American youth.

The game play of Robotron 2084 was, like most habit-forming activities, simple and intuitive. The player interface designed for the original coin-operated machines was considered highly novel for its time: a left-handed joystick allowed for movement in 8 different directions across the field of play, while a right-handed joystick allowed for the player to fire projectiles in 8 different directions as well. The dual joystick innovation was more notable, though, for how it brought proprioception back into the gaming experience, and also contributed to the game's heightened state of panic by suggesting other activities where both hands are used in equal measure (e.g. the antagonistic pushing and shoving that takes place in large crowds.) (1)  By situating the player's character directly in the middle of an unadorned, black playing field, the game simulated this feeling of being pressed against on all sides: with nothing other than an 8-way cannon and some futuristic fashion accoutrements (an all-white jumpsuit crowned by flashing oversized goggles), the player would have to blast holes in the steadily encroaching walls of opponents.

The CPU-generated enemies had little to do with 1984 other than their determined oppressiveness: their motivations were closer to those of the artificial intelligence from Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots- the genesis of the word "robot" as currently used in popular culture.) That is to say, their capacity for independent thought leads them to believe they are superior to humans: "the human race is inefficient, and therefore must be destroyed," seethes the game's load screen in an attempt to snare fresh players. The foot soldiers of this menacing robot army were stumbling, lurching red pawns known as G.R.U.N.T.s (2), who pooled into ever-growing attack formations with the ease of a snowball gathering additional snow as it rolls downhill. While these kill-bots relentlessly swarmed the player, their slower, somewhat oblivious cousins known as 'Hulks' would attempt to exterminate the pathetically rendered families of civilian humans ('Hulks' were indestructible in spite of their awkwardness and disinterest in attacking the player.)  While this combination of enemies could provide challenges on its own, the addition of spastically flickering, floating orbs known as "spheroids" and "quarks" ratcheted up the difficulty enough to give the game its famous reputation for sadism: not only did these malicious light balls bounce about the play field with no discernible rhythm to their movement, but they also spawned additional squadrons of hunter-killer drones. These, in turn, attacked the player with twice the speed of G.R.U.N.T.s, as well as with their own unnerving projectile weapons (their missiles were programmed with an algorithm that gives them a random rate of acceleration and a slightly curving trajectory, making for much more difficult evasion.) Last, but not least, came the comically designed "brains" - their heads seemed to have at least three times the mass of their bodies - who "brainwashed" the hapless nuclear family members to attack the player, and also fired homing laser beams for good measure. Attempting to rack up points by "rescuing" the civilians, while holding off these collected forces of destruction, created a conflicting set of goals (heroism vs. survival) and required abnormally rapid decision-making skill.

Like similar games that involve a single player holding his or her ground against a seething multitude of enemies, the successive stages of difficulty are known as "waves". In this case, the term is particularly apt, since hostile forces do crash down upon the player like an ocean wave. "Wave" is also an interesting choice of word, rather than "level", because it conjures a mental image of raw energy propagating through a medium - it is as if the player is at the mercy of an uncountable, amorphous natural force rather than a finite number of individual targets. The existence of a "cocktail" version of the original machine (3) is particularly amusing: inebriated players of the game, given their impaired reflexes, will not survive long against the mechanical hordes (of course, this may be the whole point of the "cocktail" version: alcohol-besotted players with wounded pride would also be likely to keep dropping coins into the machine.) The complexity of Robotron waves, like an arabesque design, makes it nearly impossible for one to perceive totality without first training the eye. Yet the game's triggering of panic mechanisms hints at something deeper than this - namely, that complexity is not equal to complete disorder.

According to Dutch synesthesia researcher Cretien van Campen:

This tendency [to see particularity and not totality] is not a flaw in human perception, but rather a vestige of an earlier mechanism to survive in the bush. Walking through a thickly wooded forest in the twilight, the human eye acts in the same manner. You see a criss-cross pattern of leaves, branches, twigs and other visible lines, and try to create a sense of order out of the chaos of the multiple visual impressions. (4)

So, it was never the mere violence of the game that provided its popular appeal: after all, a single "live" shot fired from a pistol at a firing range is more perceptibly violent than the simulated destruction of a thousand two-dimensional robots. The appeal came, rather, from the conjuring of this more primal state in an otherwise domesticated post-industrial society; a perceptual state in which encounters with "noise" were active ones reducing noise to its constituent elements for both pleasure and edification. The "noise" that we usually encounter in post-industrial society is something very different. It is an excess of signals that cancel out each other's individual meanings. We are clearly intended to become intoxicated by it, and nothing more: to passively acknowledge that it is a complex world, and leave things at that.

Of course, the cultural definition of "noise" is somewhat at odds with the term as used in information theory. As defined by the latter, noise is meaningless data or a disruptor of meaning (e.g. the roar of a low-flying airplane's engines affecting a conversation.) The cultural definition of noise elevates it to at least the level of a dog whistle: some people will perceive a "message" in the incoming data, while some people will continue to view it as non-communication or anti-communication. All it really takes for a communicative mode to become "noise" is a slight re-organization of a previous mode's molecular structure, e.g. bebop's increased tempo, its placing of emphasis on different beats within a measure, and refusal to keep instrumental solos confined to a predetermined number of measures. Once these reorganizations were in place, some in the intellectual community delighted in cracking the new codes, while others felt nothing but fatigue from this encounter with "extraneous" information: Simone de Beauvoir, in the New York City of 1947, considered the new form "abstract expressionism without meaning or content, jazz with only its rhythms still intact." (5) To her, intensified expressivity became pointless meandering "noise" much in the same way that highly articulate speech is meaningless to those who still have a small vocabulary to work with. However, as Johan Huizinga makes clear in his formulation "zwecklos aber doch sinnvoll [pointless, but significant]," even noise can be catalytic in nature, regardless of whether we recognize it as having a "meaning" or a "point."

The continued refinement of electronic instruments more or less intensified the debate about noise in the audio arts. Modern composers as ideologically and formally diverse as Moondog and Cornelius Cardew looked with contempt upon the new breed of electronic noisemakers, seeing their operations as meaningless technological exhibitionism and (in Cardew's case) distracting from more pressing social struggles. As with Beauvoir's dislike of bebop, electronic music a la Stockhausen was seen as communicating nothing other than the artist's desperation in the face of mounting boredom and exhaustion. For all of their protests, though, they failed to see the important paradox here, the "point of the pointlessness" of electronic noise: it was created as, per Brian Massumi, "a trial-and-error process of connecting with new forces, or in new ways with old forces, to unanticipated effect." (6) Both Massumi and the communication theorist Gregory Bateson also agree on the fact that noise is a generator of new systems, a necessary and often intriguing pool of "raw data" from which new kinds of language can be molded. The representatives of much more ancient arts also valued noise in their time: for example, too much comprehensibility was considered poor form for the skaldic poetry of Iceland, and in many of the poetic arts to follow.

A video by Otomo Yoshihide, ‘Condition #6’, off of the “Scanning Of Modulations” DVD released by Uplink in Tokyo.

Technology rarely reaches any level of popularization without meaning many things to many constituencies, though, and some of these constituencies are more attracted by technology's ability to destroy ossified attitudes than its potential to create new "connections." With the dawn of electronically generated or synthesized music came a massive amount of material that could now be considered "noise," since the sound generators were seen as acting apart from human agency. For those who hated these devices, it was bad enough that the machines were making unfamiliar sounds, but the (mis)perception that humans were absent from the creative process vacuumed out any possible "message." Critic Jacques Barzun, bemoaning the state of modern art in the age of such technology, wrote that "dehumanization condemns the present man as vile and concentrates the gaze on raw materials – noise, color, lines […] in rebuke to the very idea of civilization." (7) Of course, many who embraced electronic music did so precisely for the reasons Barzun mentions - for the "kids", a shift towards newness and away from cultural stasis was preferable. Video arcades and mutant electronic pop songs ("new wave"), both reaching their peak creative periods from 1978-1984, had just enough commonalities to be integral parts of a new, "noisy," electronics-oriented youth culture. However, unlike the academic vision of electronica played out in the concert hall, or the hermetic exercise of programming in the BASIC computer language, both of these cultural institutions fulfilled certain social needs tailor-made for anxious and identity-obsessed youth: the "high score" ranking system of the most experimental arcade games allowed for a clear hierarchy to be established within one's immediate peer group, while the angular rhythmic motifs of new wave allowed for both dancing and willful alienation. What's more, new wave fans could enjoy music from disaffected anti-heroes who seemed to hate them as much as the Robotron consoles did! "It's a violent world," sang the prototype electro-punk band The Screamers - and youth culture rejoiced in that (simulated) violence, with all its promises of deadly efficiency and speed….the velocity of the medium was the message.

II. Strategies of Complication

The overload aesthetic of Robotron 2084 has been ported by Eugene Jarvis (in the employ of Chicago firm Williams Electronics) to a number of other ultra-violent games, some of them exhibiting the profound sense of paranoia that is often endemic in imperial homelands. The increased power of graphics displays and sound chips enabled in-game narratives more comparable to the jingoistic Hollywood action blockbusters of the time, detracting from the hallucinogenic ambiguity of games like Robotron: gone were its vaguely humanoid forms melting into pools of strobing color, replaced by the "jacked-up" action heroes that implausibly combined the personality traits of laid-back surfers with those of para-military resistance fighters. Williams' NARC, from 1988, was a hilariously reductive version of the "War On Drugs" in which the player mows down armies of narcotized derelicts and flees from "homing missile" syringes (it was also, fittingly enough, one of many arcade games in the period 1989-2000 to feature a special message from the director of the FBI: "winners don't use drugs." (8) Total Carnage, a similarly reductive parody of the 1991 Gulf War - and another game to make use of the dual-joystick control system - stars a Saddam Hussein character working to create a race of super-mutants in his "baby milk factories" (a clear reference to the Iraqi claims of civilian infrastructure being bombed by coalition forces.) The 2004 game Total Terror continues in this tradition, although with diminishing returns and the absence of the control system that made Jarvis' previous games so popular. Whether Jarvis supports the "neo-conservative" strategy of pre-emptive strikes that these games suggest, or just has a geeky and politically unaffiliated love for cartoonish violence, is uncertain. What is clear is that he has left a sizable mark on the "overloaded" aesthetic that breeds new manifestations daily.

So, clearly, overloaded entertainment can serve a number of purposes: where violent entertainment is concerned, it can instill fear of an external world overloaded with potential threats. It can also induce a state of fascination that borders on and eventually becomes addiction, as the data addict searches for a meaning that simply doesn't exist. There are, it would seem, more reasons for a governing body to devise a system based around hyper-complexity and hyper-stimulation than on austerity, simplicity and even efficiency. Alain Touraine, in his seminal book The Post-Industrial Society, believed it was this hyper-complexity, rather than simple brute force, that would become the main organizational strategy for preventing dissent and disruption:

The inertia of a modern bureaucracy does not result from its rigidity, but from its complexity and the interrelations woven among services, bureaus, and functions. While definite orders are deformed to an absurd degree as they descend through the hierarchy, there are endless conferences designed to ensure respect for the interests of the participants and the slowing down of the whole organization. (9)

Isn't the use of overloaded noise, then, merely a replication of the dominant power structure's use of overloading to manufacture fear and confusion? It is a valid question, since we have already seen counter-cultural movements in the past fail upon embracing the mass organization methods and "personality cults" of the technocratic State. The hippie movement, in particular, tarried with these control methods while trying to make them compatible with an "organic" lifestyle. Touraine underscored why such a movement was doomed to fail, suggesting that "under the impact of new problems and new social conflicts, insufficiently organized social movements are bound to base their programs on analyses which date from an earlier situation, and insist on the continuity between the great battles of the past and those of the present." (10) The American counterculture of the 1960s made loud protests against the technocratic State while subsuming it, yet some modern electronic noisemakers tend to invert this formula: they appear to identify with the technocratic State's control methods, making those methods seem all the more obscene and unsustainable. The furious jump-cuts, split-second electric shocks and heavily layered drones of certain "post-digital" artists bring to mind Brian Massumi's dystopian picture of information-based economies:

Think of the distractedness of television viewing, the constant cuts from the screen to its immediate surroundings, to the viewing context where other actions are performed in fits and starts as attention flits. Think of the joyously incongruent juxtapositions of surfing the Internet […] Think of the imagistic operation of the consumer object, as turnover times decrease as fast as styles can be recycled. Everywhere the cut, suspense…insipience. (11)

Awareness of this "saturation aesthetic" is heightened in live performances of such music. This is not just because the morphing arabesque of sound is blasting out of larger sound systems than those found in personal residences, but because the blank non-posture of the live musicians appears, to the audience, to be nothing but a replication of the passive disinterest of an office worker…or, perhaps, the null affect of a television viewer being bombarded with signals whose incongruence increases with each "zap" of the remote control. As noise operators stare back listlessly at their laptops, with the LCD screen glow bringing this flat expression into stark relief, a certain portion of the audience will become restless and complain that "they're not doing anything, damn it!" or "if I wanted to see this shit, I would have stayed at work!" Well, yes - exactly. These seemingly anti-human live exhibitions reveal the extent to which daily life has become defined by passivity in the face of information assault. Although numerous other practical reasons exist for giving performances like these (e.g., the increased ease of international and intra-national travel without the extra burden of traditional instruments), one of their consequences has been the arousal of a long-dormant distrust of habits which, due to their intense level of repetition, sunk deeper and deeper beneath the "surface" of conscious awareness. Herein lies the subversive potential  - whether intentional or no - of performances / exhibitions of computer-aided noise.

“’Danmaku’ game, “東方Project” (‘Touhou Project’). Danmaku - translating roughly to “bullet curtain” -  is a special type of skill game inheriting the “over-saturation” aesthetic from 1980s coin-operated arcade games such as ‘Robotron’.

So, taking all this into consideration, electronic noisemaking of the "post-digital" type is not too different from the "industrial culture" interventions that began in the 1980s: in many of the interventions carried out by industrial artists, the negative qualities of technocratic society (e.g., its uniformity or its encouragement of passivity) were so thoroughly embraced that they provided opportunities for greater shocks than the expected protests against these normative behaviors. When adopting military regalia for everyday public life, industrial musicians raised the ire of both the cultural mainstream and the "official" counter-culture, while their proselytization of lab-designed art forms like Muzak were met with disbelief: who could stand to actively listen to such a thing? Elsewhere, taped collages of advertisements, pornography or various "official pronouncements" layered similar messages on top of each other until their real pervasiveness in society was made clear: when these signals were isolated or were presented in "acceptable" doses, their banality posed no threat - yet when they were clustered together into an insidious form of noise collage, their programmatic, manipulative nature was revealed.

We have to look no further than Eugene Jarvis' home base of Skokie, Illinois to see how embracing a system's "purest" aesthetic form can actively work against it. The city is famous for its 1977 court decision, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, which granted the "Illinois Nazis" the right to march through the town (12) in full fascist regalia with swastika flags (Skokie was known at the time as the home of numerous Holocaust survivors, and now hosts the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.) Though seen by the victorious NSPA as a public relations coup, the long-term effects have, arguably, been damaging to their cause: here was an organization that was unfurling the banner of fascism's most militaristic and destructive period in the age of "family-friendly" fascism (with its main emphasis placed on conservation, increasing birth rates, and so on.) Although the members of the NSPA were likely not agent provocateurs, their over-zealousness did much to damage their own cause: they are portrayed as the villainous buffoons in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers (a 'cult classic' which still receives a healthy number of viewings today), and the pugilistic "neo-Nazi" became a regular feature on the lowbrow, bread-and-circuses American talk shows of the 1980s and 1990s.

III. Does "Noise" Equal "Extremity"?

Nowadays, various cliques of would-be rebels believe that a pose of cynicism or ironic distancing is an effective means of opting out of "the system." Yet, here again, this is likely what "the system," or managerial state, expects from its outliers: what it does not count on is for people to take it more seriously than it takes itself, and to therefore make art that renders its ideals visible in intense, lurid colors that it would not dare to use itself. Even some of the "extreme" exponents of rock, metal, and electronic music in this society assume an oppositional pose while also telegraphing the apparently non-oppositional idea that more is always better, or that super-abundance of experiences is a worthy substitute for quality of experience. Their extreme use of volume, fetishized violence and willful offensiveness is not at all incompatible with an ethos defined by extremes of consumption, distraction and "one-upmanship": intense hardcore and death metal music provides a perfect compliment to the body-building rituals whereby an excessive amount of musculature symbolizes a "fully realized self." Even the finely honed sacrilege or blasphemy of many "extreme" musical acts is more of a curious sideshow than an outright attack on prevailing social norms. The battle between these sacrilegious groups and the religious establishment is just a microcosm of the "culture war" that disregards an important fact: unchecked technological progress has already been enthroned as the latest 'savior', borrowing the utopian narratives of religion along the way. Across the technocratic U.S., church services now take the form of tech-saturated multi-media presentations, while religious scholars ironically employ scientific method to prove various tenets of the faith. And, even as modern wars are promoted as clashes with encroaching enemy faiths, the fact remains that they are being fought to maintain technological advantage (after all, who would be inspired to march to their death for something as banal as "raw materials?") The noise of technocracy continues unabated, and effortlessly absorbs the not-quite-noisy-enough "extreme" artists.

So, with "extreme" pop culture increasingly becoming a rote and harmless exercise in shocking those who want to be shocked anyway, the time has come to use the ambiguity of noise to overload the overloaders. Not to replicate their fatiguing media noise 'note for note', but to respond with an even more ludicrous chain of non-messages than what has been received, and to thus bestow upon noise the dual features of serious counter-statement and constructive fun. This is possible at the most elementary and bodily level, as Michel Serres explains in The Parasite, when referring to the panoply of (mostly) non-communicative vocal noises that serve multiple functions. A well-placed sneeze can interrupt a conversation even as it clears up congestion: "noise destroys an order; the order of discourse, it also produces another order." (13) It follows, then, that "noise turns around, like a revolving door…the beginning or the end of a system for the former; an entrance or exit for the latter." (14) Vocal disruptions (belches, hiccups, etc.) can be highly comical and relieving when they interrupt a "serious" conversation, sometimes forcing rehearsed lines to be forgotten and necessitating that the conversation is re-started from a totally different angle. In the same way, a parasitic, polyphonic blast of sounds or visuals can slice through the "serious," reverent atmosphere maintained by the information economy.

I often wake up laughing out loud, upon experiencing dreams that randomly, noisily connect the most absurd of scenarios with perfect fluidity- this is the kind of feeling that can be achieved with the most electrifying noise cut-ups, which do not have to be only dour and negative portraits of a world that is slipping away from us. Noise-as-art may be the absence of meaning, but - as noted earlier - it is also the materia prima of new meanings, and so making noise as a grim apocalyptic statement ("look what society has reduced us to…we can only make 'noise' now!") helps nothing. However, when noisy art is made with its transformative power in mind, it can show how the noise of "officially approved" media is overloaded but ultimately monotonous. Like the sadistic waves of the Robotron game, this media noise is simply technological complexity disguised as primordial and formidable "chaos." Have no fear of it.

1.Designer Eugene Jarvis takes particular pride in this design innovation, claiming "Robotron has always been frustrating in non-arcade versions because of the lack of the dual joystick control. Because of the intensity of play, the game is very athletic, and it is very nice to have a 300-pound arcade cabinet stabilizing your joysticks. Without true 'dual fixed' joysticks, the game can be quite frustrating in console and PC versions." http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/BOOK/JARVIS.HTM, retrieved September 26, 2010.

2.An acronym for "Ground Roving Unit Network Terminator."

3.A "cocktail" game console is one in which the view screen is placed beneath a glass tabletop, onto which players can set their drinks.

4.Cretien van Campen, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia In Art And Science, p. 75. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2010.

5.John Szwed, So What: The Life Of Miles Davis,p. 36. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002.

6.Brian Massumi, Parables For The Virtual, p. 96. Duke University Press, Durham / London, 2002.

7.Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve, p. 177. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1989.

8.The Australian electro-industrial group Snog parodied this slogan in the booklet accompanying their 1999 CD Third Mall From The Sun: beneath portraits of U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the modified slogan reads "winners don't use drugs…they just sell them."

9.Alain Touraine, The Post-Industrial Society, p. 57. Trans. Leonard F.X. Mayhew. Random House, New York, 1971.

10.Ibid, p. 14.

11.Brian Massumi, Parables For The Virtual, p. 42. Duke University Press, Durham / London, 2002.

12.Due to the high amount of publicity granted to the court case, the actual location of the march was moved: marching on Skokie was seen as redundant.

13.Michel Serres, The Parasite, p. 243. Trans. Lawrence Schehr. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

14.Ibid., p. 284.

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