I'm still reeling from 2016, and it's not even done yet.
As someone who makes & consumes “media” – so I guess that's every one of us now – I'm mad at how ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ just kept making worst parts of 2016 even worse. We replayed terrorist attacks in HD over and over, basically doing ISIS's propaganda for them. We viewed, clicked, shared shootings by police and shootings of police, worsening the mutual distrust on both sides. We separated ourselves in political echo chambers, treating the other side with smug contempt, and...
...and that brings us to this week.
Like I said, I'm still reeling.
But even before Trump's win, and the ensuing backlash, I was cheesed off at ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ's vicious cycles. Here's the feedback loop:
conflict → the media blows it up → even more conflict
This frustrated me all year, and I just had to express my frustration the only way I knew how: by making a silly lil' video game.
WE BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD [free web game]
a game about news cycles, vicious cycles, infinite cycles
(Spoilers ahead, so you might wanna play the game before reading on. It only takes five minutes! But no pressure.)
I released this game last month, and it's gotten really great reception so far. This week's election results also gave it a second boost! I'm honored and humbled by how my rant-in-game-form resonated with so many people.
I made We Become What We Behold to reflect on a feedback loop I saw in 2016. Now, this post-mortem is me reflecting on that reflection – and what we do now, moving forward.
Let's start with how the game idea first came about...
This year may be The Worst Year Ever, but remember that two years ago was also The Worst Year Ever. Ferguson happened that summer, ISIS hit the world stage, and Ebola too coz hey why not.
That summer, I was also annoyed with how ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ was handling these events, so I made a game prototype where you played as a photographer whose goal was to get the most click-worthy pics. I thought the picture-taking game mechanic was a clever idea – but I never found out a way to use the mechanic in a meaningful way.
But it got me thinking more about ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ. In the following two years, I read Marshall McLuhan, Amusing Ourselves To Death, and other books analyzing how ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ shapes our cultures, our lives, our minds. I also watched – and fell in love with – Videodrome and Nightcrawler, two horror films about sensationalist TV. (Oh, and don't forget Black Mirror!)
Of course, all that would just be navel-gazing, unless I actually tried to do something about it. So earlier this year, I applied for and got into The OpenNews Fellowship, where I'd be embedded into a journalist organization to try to improve the way they work! Right now, I'm at PBS Frontline, the Emmy-winning investigative documentary series. (Thankfully, because they're not tied to the 24/7 news cycle, they can avoid making clickbait, and instead make deep-dive investigations)
And while I was there, I learnt the secret about the journalism community:
Everyone who works in ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ also hates ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ.
Not "hate" as in contempt, but "hate" as in angry self-critical disappointment. Journalists are painfully aware how ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ feeds into vicious cycles of distrust and political polarization. Journalists want to change that – really! – but they're limited, because of the other side of the feedback loop:
Us. ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴜᴅɪᴇɴᴄᴇ.
Clickbait only works if people click on it. The reason so much of ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ is vicious, echo-chamber sensationalism is because that's exactly what we, the audience, want. We don't want to watch people getting along – that's boring. We don't want to read arguments from the other side – that's uncomfortable. We don't want to understand complexity – that takes months of study, who's got time for that, you're just reading this on your phone during a five-minute poop break.
There are journalists out there making deep, nuanced, hard-hitting work – and their reward is they get to starve.
Anyway. One day, during a five-minute poop break, I thought about my old game prototypes, the horror films about sensationalist TV, and the violence-filled summer of 2016 a.k.a The Worst Year Ever, and thought – hey, if I combine all of those, that'd make a pretty cool game. It'd be like Nightcrawler meets Pokémon Snap, I thought.
That's it. That's my game's origin story.
Anyway, now that I had the inspiration, I just needed a tight, coherent way to convey it all in "game" form, which brings me to...
I don't believe in “Eureka!” moments. I don't think an apple can just hit you on the head, and VOILÁ, you suddenly realize that Fgravity = Gm1m2/r2 or whatever. That said, I'm surprised how close the initial concept for We Become What We Behold was to the finished version! I think that's because everything – the art, the gameplay, the message – revolved around one single, simple idea:
For years, I've thought about the crappy feedback loops that both ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴀ and ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴜᴅɪᴇɴᴄᴇ are complicit in. But now, I had a way to present these loops visually – with the “screen within a screen” imagery – and mechanically – with the same small gameplay interaction repeated over and over, each time slightly different.
But most importantly, this feedback loop only rolls in one direction. The gears have a ratchet. If you take a picture of a Circle Person being angry at a Square Person, that gets viewers, making Square People angry at Circle People in return. But if you take a picture of Circles & Squares getting along, ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴜᴅɪᴇɴᴄᴇ doesn't care to watch that, and so nothing changes.
Like a snowball rolling down a hill, even the smallest of conflicts, the tiniest of transgressions, the stupidest of social media posts... can grow into a fully polarized and pissed-off society.
It's the same ol' story. And speaking of stories...
Now all of that coulda made a nice abstract game, making a nice abstract argument. But after I playtested my first few prototypes, I realized I had a big problem: players “got it”, but had no emotional connection to what they were playing.
So here was the big insight, that was not part of my original plan – I would tell an actual story with actual characters. To avoid over-complicating it, I kept each character's story simple. But to make it interesting, I had each character's story weave in and out with each other. Like three simple threads, forming a beautiful braid.
By weaving these characters into each other, it weaves them into the player's heart... and makes the violent ending of We Become What We Behold so much more emotionally devastating.
(I warned you about spoilers!)
Stories create empathy. That's what's missing from our politics: empathy. I know, I know, that word gets used as a club to beat others over the head, to condescendingly accuse peeps of having no "empathy" for this group or that, so, I'll start by accusing me. This year, I finally opened my eyes and heart to an underprivileged group who's been long ignored in my city-slicker filter bubble: the rural working class.
And I finally gained that empathy, through one man's story.
Hillbilly Elegy is one of the best books I've read all year. Half heartbreaking memoir, half sociological case study, this book tells the tale of the author's life growing up in rural Middletown, Ohio. A town stricken with poverty. A town that the elites left behind. A town where the author lived with his drug addict mother, an endless cycle of stepdads, and the crushing atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness.
(Now imagine living through all that, and some uppity upper-class Ivy League kid tells you to check your privilege.)
After reading Hillbilly Elegy, I felt humbled. Then, pissed as hell, at myself and my fellow city-slickers. We called the rural folk uneducated white trash, then we called them woman-hating Bernie Bros, then we were shocked – SHOCKED! – that they would turn against us, and flock to the orange racist with small hands?
Now that's deplorable!
I also wanna make a quick note that the whole “Trump won because racism” story is, at best, seriously incomplete. Many of the Rust Belt states who voted for Trump this year, voted for Obama in '08 and '12 – and Trump got more votes from blacks & latin@s than Romney ever did.
Not to deny there is some racism in those circles. (Maybe that could be alleviated with sharing not smugness, but stories from our side? May I recommend Between The World And Me?) If I may do a bit of urbansplaining, many progressives in cities focus on racism because they do care about the poor! – but the only poor they see on a day-to-day basis is the urban poor, who are mostly minorities. That's why we're so obsessed with racism... and assume that anyone who's against us must, therefore, be racist.
One side cares for the rural poor – and their enemy is the elites, symbolized by Clinton. The other side cares for the urban poor – and their enemy is racism, symbolized by Trump.
But don't you see? We have the same story. We could have worked together on helping all of the poor, both rural and urban. Instead of tearing at each others' throats for months, for years, god DAMMIT, WE COULD HAVE ALL BEEN ON THE SAME TEAM. (sidenote: (This is the exact same idea Martin Luther King had when he founded the Poor People's Campaign – that poor minorities and poor whites are actually “natural allies”!... if it weren't for those in power pitting us against each other. Yes, I'm looking at you, salty clickbait thinkpieces.))
There was one more important thing I added to We Become What We Behold. My original plan was to just leave the game on a depressing ending, bing bang boom, th-th-th-th-th-that's all folks.
But, after the credits, I added this short scene:
Two characters – one Circle and one Square – staying strong, staying resilient, staying united, in a new beginning after the end.
That's how I feel, right now.
I mean sure, I spent the night of November 8th constantly refreshing FiveThirtyEight & screaming "FLORIDAAAAAAAA", but now? I actually feel...
Humble. Determined. Like I have a newfound clarity of purpose.
Everyone – pro-Trump, pro-Clinton, and everyone too disgusted with either candidate – is desperately trying to figure out: how the hell did our country get so divided? And heyyyyy, guess who's already been making widely-accessible games & simulations that explain how societies get divided? IT ME.
But seriously, the nation's deep division is a gaping, bleeding, festering wound that we need to stitch up, fast. And I am dedicating myself to healing that wound however I can.
We become what we behold. So I'll behold unity, until we become united.
. . .
The morning after the election, November 9th, I tweeted a bit about the rural/urban divide. Remember, rural voters came out strongly for both Sanders & Trump – and in the UK, for Brexit. Here's what I said:
Anyway, it seemed We Become What We Behold got quite a few pro-Trump fans – good to know my game could burst through our filter bubbles! – and one of them, a fellow game developer, respectfully replied with this:
And I twote:
And he twote:
And that was the best possible way I could have spent my November 9th. It was the most inspiring interaction I've ever had on Twitter, which I guess is a pretty low bar, coz Twitter sucks, but still. It meant a lot.
That same day, Clinton, Obama, and Trump himself all announced calls for unity, to bridge this great divide. Take these politicians' words with however much salt you need, but I've also seen a few brave individuals here and there publicly dedicating themselves to healing this wound – and now I'm dedicating myself to that, too.
Yes, I know that's easier said than done. Yes, I know I don't know the solution. Yes, I know I don't even know what caused the problem.
I'll just end with an uplifting thought: we're all in pain and caught in a deadly trap.
But we're in the same trap, together.
Our enemy isn't each other, it's the LOOPS LOOPS LOOPS of distrust that we've fallen into. That's not to say what's been done hasn't been hurtful or damaging – but that's what scared, wounded creatures do to each other in a small cage.
The first step is to realize we share the same primary goal: getting out of the trap alive. The second step is to come up with creative ways of meeting both our goals at the same time, like maybe bringing back MLK's Poor People's Campaign, to give work and dignity back to both the rural and urban poor. And the final step is, once we've broken out of the trap, we still work with each other, and we still trust each other.
This election just rattled the cage pretty hard – maybe hard enough to finally break it.
Good luck, everyone. <3