Network is my favourite film. It tells the stories of Howard Beale, and more broadly of network news itself, as Beale goes insane on air and taps into the rage of a generation. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” he cries, and the whole nation cries with him.
Sometimes it’s like that in games. Consider how many developers hate Zynga, Ian Bogost’s declaration that gamification is bull, or a recent thread on Facebook asking whether Angry Birds is really that good, to be met with a torrent of acidic responses. Consider many of the threads in forums like The Chaos Engine where shared misery is a state of being.
Resentment, anger, begrudgery, disappointment and so on are common in any creative field. Yet they serve no purpose and can sap your enthusiasm for trying to do something awesome if you let them.
Cow Clicking Angry Men
It’s fun to yell. It’s also fun to make games that yell as Ian did with Cow Clicker, his satirical Facebook game which had 55,000 MAU at its height. It’s even more fun to be the yelling reviewer, like Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation who has turned the angry review into an art form.
My Twitter stream has a steady supply of people yelling, swearing, cursing or hating on a daily basis. Look at Reddit, Gamasutra or many forums and it’s often the same. People need to express their dissatisfaction, and the funny ones become popular doing it. And yet…
And yet none of these otherwise entertaining outbursts achieves anything. It’s sometimes necessary, even worthy, to chime in on an particularly aggravating moment (like the video of London teenagers mugging a Malaysian student who had already been hit with a brick) but as a long term outlook it serves no purpose.
Angry causes in a creative field mean nothing to players because they are here to be entertained. Even stand-up comedians can’t just stand on a stage and yell about how awful the world is. They need to make it funny because the funny is why the audience is there.
Anger tends to peter out or, in the case of forum culture and the like, revert to a small echo chamber of members who vociferously agree with each other that the world is going to hell. It becomes inward-looking, unproductive and can ultimately destroy your enthusiasm for doing anything.
Anger unresolved becomes a kind of depression. The world seems doomed no matter which way you look at it, and only the evil thrive.
Positive Stories Endure
In social media and other sources of communication, a phenomenon called memetic evolution is constantly at work. Originally coined by Richard Dawkins to describe how ideas tend to develop, the internet speeds memetic evolution up massively. We become exposed to so many more ideas that the process of survival, mutation and recombination happens far faster than most of us can track.
At a surface level, this appears to create a buzzword culture. Gamification, for example, is lampooned by Ian as nothing more than a marketing phrase used by people who are adept at talking nonsense to further their careers.
I think differently: The memes (especially marketing stories) that survive tend to do so for two reasons:
1. They are Positive.
When Jane McGonigal stood up on stage at TED to talk about her ideas, you could read it in two ways. Either you could dig into the specifics of her speech and note that the Herodotus story is a bit flaky, and some of the joints of her argument maybe don’t quite fit together.
Or you could tap into the positive message: Jane thinks games have a part to play in saving the world, are overwhelmingly good for all of us, and that this is to be encouraged.
Regardless of whether her argument is 100% complete or not, positivity is why Jane has 22,000 Twitter followers, a best-selling book, gigs on television, a social network of her own (Gameful) with 4,000 members and so on.
Positivity has a much longer half-life than negativity because it’s inspirational and people like to share inspirational things. Anger may be funny, but it’s also short-lived and people don’t like to share it around because of how it makes them look.
2. They Are Valuable.
Memes often don’t survive. Remember ARGs? Remember virtual worlds? Remember how they were the hot ticket a few years ago and there was a massive buzz around them, only for them to die off?
Was it the anger around them that ultimately stopped them? No. It was because the stories turned out to be lacking. As I’ve written about before in this blog, the meta-game story that tends to infect academic circles for a time and yet fall foul of the real world is an example of a meme that drifts away because there just isn’t enough substance to it.
The ones that do endure are the ones that find continual resonance with the audience. Many of the deeper philosophical positions of game design (such as narrativism, tetrism and simulationism) that hang around do so because they keep finding an audience for their ideas. Again, this has nothing to do with whether they are correct or not, but rather whether those audiences find them to be valuable or not.
Memetic evolution tends to take care of the truly egregious, the wasteful and the pointless. If an idea flames out, has nowhere left to go or becomes inverted on itself, then the crowd will simply stop talking about it after a while.
Be Like Max
Howard Beale is not the hero of Network. The hero is Max Schumacher, the only major character in the movie who manages to overcome the instinct to rage and keep his soul. Unlike all the other characters wrapped up in the drama that Beale has spawned, Max realises that it’s all madness and refuses to let it destroy him. He leaves it all behind, and so the case for humanity in the face of anger is made.
If you want a role model, you could do a lot worse than look to Max Schumacher. Ignore the drama. Leave the company of the crazy. Rage will only make you depressed, and hanging out in the company of the angry will only reinforce that depression. Some forums are only filled with negative types who need to drag you down in order to reinforce their own hopelessness. Why let them?
Find a positive community of people instead. Online or off, there are places that people go to find encouragement and excitement. They are full of insight or interesting things. Cleave to them.
Forget the rage. Focus instead on what matters, your own game world that fans will love, and drown out the noise. Look for insight in what’s going on around you rather than reasons to be annoyed. Use that insight to find a new and positive story, and maybe one day it will be someone else getting mad at you for daring to change the world a little.