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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Games Day: Tableflip - buy more games! (The commercialisation of our generation)

Games Day, is a new addition to my schedule. More info on the What I do page.

This piece of writing is motivated by the recent pay-toll that has been added to the very popular internet series 'Tabletop' which is hosted by Wil Wheaton.


If this had come as a total surprise then I suppose I'd have very little to say, but this outcome was entirely expected, because as a veteran geek this is the sort of thing I've seen repeatedly in 'my culture'.

A. What Culture?

So, a bit of self-identification here, but my interests put me firmly in the category of geek or nerd or saddo or weirdo. The latter two being the more common descriptors when I was younger and the other two terms being used affectionately and confidently nowadays. Ultimately it comes down to liking certain forms of entertainment that, until recently, have been looked down upon. Whether this is Star Trek or other Sci-Fi films, Tolkienesque fantasy novels, playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) or other role-playing games (RPGs), and other 'geeky' pursuits like computer games, any or all of these would have you labelled as a social outcast for failing conform to normalcy. I'll admit, I liked all of it, including being a pariah, because what was 'normal' didn't really appeal to me all too much (and it still doesn't). However, this wasn't a rebellious act (certainly not to begin with) it was just what interested me. It probably all started with a classroom reading of 'The Hobbit' when I was about ten years old, which combined with an overactive imagination, no siblings, and a love of drawing meant that I spent way too much time drawing all the dwarves and trolls and other characters, but more than that, it led me to find a hobby I felt especially at home with. Something that rewards imagination, careful thought, and fun.

The Hobbit: a primer for nerds

Perhaps because there are so many aspects to geek culture there are also so many ways to be a member of the culture. Some may like books to the exclusion of film (or vice versa), some may not play board games, or think RPGs are "a little weird," or any other combination. It's got to the point now that each 'area' has it's own nomenclature with the lines drawn around different franchises, or types of game or different mediums of entertainment. This is because it is now 'acceptable' to be a member of these communities, to be a geek at all, so that a conversation about what 'type' of geek you are is now also perfectly acceptable. When I was a youngling, back in the early 90's, it was a better idea to fake other interests or else be considered a total weirdo (like I was).

B. Geek-capital

Geek culture is now mainstream. The most successful films and television shows of the last few years are all deeply connected to all things geeky. Consider the Marvel superhero movies, the success of Game of Thrones, and the triumphant return of Star Wars. All the sorts of things that would have been only considered for a 'select' audience years ago.



Every good business person knows that those obsessed with a hobby make the best customers, because you can literally sell them the same thing repeatedly. And this generation of geek is nothing but loyal to their chosen 'fandom' or franchise or genre. Obviously hobbyists are by nature collectors, but normally the collecting aspect of the hobby is only part of it. The activity and the community have always been the most important focal point for the hobby, even for something that is built entirely on the collection itself, for example the old classic of stamp collecting.

However, the great thing for business is that geeks build that community around the activity themselves. Indeed many would happily devote hours of their free time to help better develop a website or write fan fiction or edit a computer game (i.e. creating 'mods' for specific games). All the business need do is make sure that there is enough 'new' products for the geek-consumers to keep coming back for. 

I got into geek culture at the ideal time, it had grown enough so that even weird kids in remote corners of Scotland could buy the games and although not nearly as big budget as they are presently there were some film and television shows too (Star Trek TNG), but also it had not grown so popular that it had become a homogeneous collection-magnet

Okay, so that phrase deserves some describing before we move on. The first part refers to the habit of larger businesses buying out smaller competitors, the Imperial business model, which can mean the inclusion of some interesting ideas and innovations but also means that it becomes harder for smaller companies to get started in the first place. Ending with the point that there are only a few 'big name' brands left in the field. Once all the small fish have been squashed out of the pool, you know need a reason for your customers to continually buy from your brand. This is when the product becomes a collectable, it's also the point when the imagination tends to leave the game or whatever. Now, the final claim here can certainly be disputed, as by this point the company can afford to hire all the best writers and artists in the hobby, but there is also now no need to be constantly developing to make your game, your story, your product the most interesting conceptually, because people by this point will be buying it whatever.

X. The expected responses to criticism

Perhaps, I'm just an example of a proto-hipster, whereby I can remember when it was better or purer, but that this really only comes down to a combination of posing and nostalgia. However, that's just not true, but it doesn't stop it being a common dismissal. So, let's look at some of these common responses to commercialisation and the insidious attempt (by marketing) to remove the possibility of any criticism of their slapping a price on everything.

The responses come down to two approaches; either dismiss the critic as childish, ineffectual, anti-social, deluded, or pretentious (as above), or else suggest that without commercialisation your 'favourite games' wouldn't be here for you to enjoy, "you want this? you gotta pay!" The only way is capitalism...

Indeed, in the video introduction for 'alpha' (the paid monthly membership service that is the toll-gate for viewing 'tabletop') the presenter (complete with a I'm-too-cool-to-be-a-middle-manager-haircut-and-yet-I-am) makes mention of the fans "throwing their dice at her" when she introduces the cost, which pretty conforms to approach one. It is a soft jokey critique however, but not any less effective for that. It succeeds in making fun of those that might have thought of any alternatives to the idea of a monthly payment for viewing, in making them seem foolish or childish even.

Attacking the critic in this manner, pushes the critical geek back into 'not belonging' which seems to be the harshest of terms in this contemporary culture. Perhaps because of the internet, these formerly disparate, niche, and often very small groups have found themselves part of a large global culture (one that has indeed become 'popular') and the threatening insult that "you don't belong anymore" means that they 'go back' to being the social outcast neckbeard losers they had hoped this popularity had removed them from.

This is ironic (in a manner), because critical analysis has always been part of geek culture. Whether it is the overly literal 'rules lawyers' found in role-playing games, or those willing to debate Star Trek versus Star Wars for hours, or so forth. Being a geek is being intelligent (sometimes) and critical (always), it isn't just being a blind consumer.

Y. Commercialisation of imagination

As there are many types of ways to be a geek nowadays, there are also many markets and commercial opportunities for business. Let's start with the most famous growth model. When D&D took off in the US in the 70's and 80's there were many like-minded hobbyists that saw an outlet for their own imaginative games, but this boom in interest also meant lots more people with money to spend. Business isn't bothered by small geek movements, such as D&D in the early days, which was only really played by groups of dedicated college students, but once it because larger and much more popular then you have the grounds for an adequate market. Also, once it gets so large it becomes a proposition that really does need sound business management, because hobbyists or gamers aren't in it for the money, their love is for their game or their genre or whatever, they just want to keep making or developing their hobby. While this is great for gamers or readers or what have you, it's also a terrible way to do business. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were the epitome of this really, both absolutely in love with idea of their game, and both utterly hopeless at managing a company.

Tom Moldvay's 'user friendly' basic edition re-write

So, when actual managers got involved, it seemed like things were on the up. Indeed they were, profits were certainly up, with the introduction of 'basic' (above) and 'advanced' versions of D&D there were plenty of books to buy, there were regular releases of new expansions and new adventures, there was a monthly magazine, and many other products. However, this is the thing about D&D, about any geek hobby really, is that it's based on (like I said) the activity and the community. There is (for me) something fundamentally punk about the aesthetic of geek culture, or perhaps this is simply my generational approach, but as the community is based in imagination, and the games and stories are about using your imagination, it seems to  obviously approach that the games themselves are merely to be taken as a starting off point. So, before it became about collecting (before it become over-commercialised, I contend) it didn't depend on owning a great deal of the products. Simply put, if you had the basic rule book and a few expansions (player's and DM's guides) for the game, then you could create your own stories, worlds, your own customised rule sets. For example: It's interesting to note that the successful and popular RPG Pathfinder is basically a customised set of third edition (3.5) D&D rules.

Of course, D&D didn't stay punk, it got bigger, and bigger! Eventually it attracted the attentions of Wizards of the Coast who bought out D&D from TSR in 1997. Wizards who had made their money with the addictive collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, were also soon bought over by Hasbro in 1997. Bigger and bigger fish! Less room for all the weird little indie fishes...

When D&D's fourth edition came out in 2007 it was pretty obvious that the publishers were trying to keep the game relevant by mimicking the style of various online computer games such a World of Warcraft, in the manner of tiered skill trees and a more simple modular game style (it's interesting how most computer game designers started out playing pen and paper role-playing games too). This wasn't overly well received and led to Pathfinder (noted above) and various small role-playing games taking off. However, role-playing games despite recapturing some of their imaginative originality are now far from as popular as during the 80's and 90's.

Φ. Keep your grubby capitalist paws off my games!

Now that the most popular genres of entertainment are those of geek culture, surely this must be a golden age to be a geek in?

Well, only if you conform to the excepted ways of being a 'geek', that is, being a 'true geek' now seems to be based upon owning all the right things and having bought or seen the rest. More than that, the constant pressure to comply means that your membership of your chosen fandom(s) is based on you showing brand loyalty. Your response to your fandom must always be one of near hysterical adoration with no room for critical questions about over-merchandising, or dumbing-down, or anything else. To do so, would show that you aren't a 'true' fan but a 'hater' or a 'whiner' or a 'basement-dwelling neckbeard troll'.

I'll admit though that I'm pleased to see the quality of the products improve. Board-games are going through a real golden period, role-playing games have quality art now (unlike before, see the basic D&D cover above), the films and television have huge budgets and finally decent special effects (sorry 'Hawk the Slayer' but you were rubbish). So, for the pragmatic buyer you can find some excellent games, it's just that most seem to be based on the formula learned from the success of Magic: The Gathering. "You want more things, you want better things?" Then you need to spend spend spend!

So, returning to this piece's impetus 'Tabletop', I could spend my money and watch the show now, or I could just wait a few months and it'll turn up on YouTube like we were all expecting it to do about six months previously. Sure we could just buy all the things we think would make us happy, that's the dream of capitalism after all (selling unneeded things to people), but that was never the outlook of geek culture. As I said, it's basis is in the activity and the community, but also; being critical of developments in the community, and being an active part of that community itself. Even if that means developing 'home brew' rules for your group, or turning that into its own stand-alone game system (i.e. Pathfinder). There are similar types of stories in each aspect of geek culture; game designers/programmers starting by re-developing a favourite computer game (aka 'modding'), writers starting by writing good quality fan-fiction set in their game worlds (i.e. NOT twilight fan-fic author E.L. James) and so on. It's a community based in a love of imaginative story-telling, the precision of logical rules, and in arguing about all these things.

I'm not suggesting everyone designs their own games and then whittles the pieces themselves, or anything as similarly outlandish for other geek categories, but that neither should we accept the view that 'being a geek' is a passive activity primarily characterised by consumerism.

Futurama originates the meme/catchphrase, now used unironically

***

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

(free) Words on Wednesday: "You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide."

This is an extended edit of a comment I made earlier today in response to someone paraphrasing the above remark on Farcebook.

It is itself a response to the news that the UK government has passed the "snooper's charter" or the Draft Communications Data Bill without much of a fuss, or complaint from the opposition, or taking into account the views of those in the communications industry or anything like that. Here's a link to a story in the Guardian. And here's one that explains that encryption technology can also be bypassed by the government with this law.


"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."

          - Edward Snowden

But maybe that's not convincing enough. Here's some other reasons why this is bad for you, if you need to have it made personal rather than seeing why it would be bad if you are a Muslim or a protester or a journalist or someone who uses private data (like lawyers, therapists, doctors etc.)

1. YOU don't decide whether you've done anything wrong, the government does. So, maybe you think you're totally innocent now but ultimately that is not up to you to decide.
2. The rules might change. Now this is law, there's not much we can do if they decide to 'extend' it. 
3. Laws need to change, people need to express opposition to laws, "You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide" is not the language of a democratic society, or a position that allows opposition or difference, it is a weak encouragement of the powerful.
4. Privacy is (or should be) a fundamental human right. If we allow it to be so described, as the 'nothing to fear' assumption does, as a basis in hiding a wrong-doing then we are also allowing ourselves to be labelled as potential criminals straight away. Privacy is about human dignity, it is about having some measure of personal freedom. Wanting privacy doesn't mean you've something to hide.
5. What happens with the storing of this data? What happens if this data is lost, or hacked? When it becomes the property of someone else, someone who does not even have to pretend to have your best interests at heart (like the UK government does) then you might find that this was a bad idea after all.


Big Brother is Watching You


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Library Tales: Book curse

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”

- from the library of the monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona



It appears that some people have always taken libraries as a free book shop. I'd imagine that these threats of damnation did about as much good as our threats of fines to students. At one point a student was not allowed to graduate until they had paid all of their library fines, which became a motivating factor, however, one clever law student pointed out this was actually illegal and most institutions stopped enforcing this. Still, most libraries would be wise to not let this fact be well known.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Thoughts on Thursday: Tabula Rasa

Presently I feel as if my mind has been swept blank,



& although there are no thoughts, there is a noise




an intense buzzing,





which comes in waves,






washing me further from the shores of feeling







into a deep cold sea, populated with monsters








King's spoil, dread with the undecided, blooded doomed









plunging gasping back towards the light, fearful as a newborn










. CFT 2016

Illustration by Mervyn Peake

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Quotes worth saving (20): the coming ages of barbarism and darkness



After Virtue: a study in moral theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre.
Published in 1981. 



It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognizing fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict.

(p.263)


Alasdair MacIntyre

Monday, 7 November 2016

Melancholy Mondays: Please don't

The red tie is the new arditi fez

Don't.

Please don't.

I know it might look like a way to overthrow corporate neo-liberalism, but this isn't the way.

The only real way to accomplish that would take hard work and co-operation.

Please America, don't.

Some people have talked about a Trump presidency making the world an "interesting place."

I suppose self-immolation is 'interesting' in a manner of speaking.

So, don't do it.

Just don't.

Please.

I fear it's too late already, however, whether he wins or not.

Brexit has helped give a public voice to the darker thoughts of a part of British society that I once considered a minority, but those thoughts were always there waiting.

It's always easier to stoke resentment than a mutual accord.

People are not good.

People are not evil.

People are good AND evil. Their battle is internal. Individual. Constant. Their failures are externalised and multiplied by denial.

We think of ourselves, when we should think of others.

We blame others, when we should blame ourselves.

Please don't be selfish.

Please don't be cruel.

Please don't be dumb.

Please.

Don't.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Silly sATURDAY: It's all relative


Geologically - within a fraction
Individually - mortifying
Cosmically - nada
Interpersonally - "perhaps it's the tie?" - JJ

Friday, 28 October 2016

Film on Friday: 'Strange' choices, reacting before the reaction & pinning the blame



Why is Tilda Swinton playing a character, in the forthcoming Doctor Strange, depicted in the comic books as a Tibetan male?

This has been met with cries of 'white washing' that I would consider well-intentioned but incorrect and possibly unhelpful (see postscript). Much like the habit of describing any bigoted hate speech as 'racist' is also unhelpful, as it masks potentially more difficult discussions that should be made instead.

So, perhaps it is just that it's easier to simply label a form of activity in only one manner and, for example, call everything that involves discriminatory speech 'racist' when actually it is more complicated than that.

Now, I'm not going to make the equally misguided and unhelpful argument that only white men make, the dismissive "there is no such thing as race anyway" argument, which is a form of so-called 'colour blindness' both of which are things that only someone that does NOT suffer from any form of racial discrimination can ever have or make.

Also, this is not to say that 'white washing' doesn't happen and isn't a problem in Hollywood films or entertainment in general. However, as I said, it's complicated and I think this particular case (of Tilda Swinton) has to do with more than any of the articles dealing with the subject have considered.

Let's look at the original character first of all.

The Asian One
The Ancient One, Marvels tells us, was born hundreds of years ago ('over five hundred' which is, I suspect, a time beyond knowing for Americans) in the Himalayas in the area now known as Tibet. Of course, for it not to be Tibet, it would have to have been much more than five hundred years, as the Tibetan Empire existed in the 7th century, which then collapsed in the 9th century and had no central rule (but was still, I assume, Tibet) until the 13th century. At which point the Mongols invaded. Anyway, let's not get into too much of a history lesson about Tibet (something evidently the Marvel writers didn't do either) and instead look at the Ancient One's introduction as a comic book character and the context of the time.

The first appearance of the character was as 'the High Lama' in 1961, and as the 'Ancient One' in 1963, with his origin story only being fully described in a 1966 issue of Strange Tales (#148).

With those dates it seems pretty obvious who was the influence on this character. Namely Tenzin Gyatso, who had fled in exile from Tibet in 1959 after the Tibetan Uprising and was, probably, reasonably famous in the US. The use of the Dalai Lama as your mystical magical, might I even say inscrutable, figure would nowadays reek of Orientalism or exoticism, in the sense of cultural (mis-)appropriation. One could say that therefore it was not an attempt at 'white washing' but rather an attempt to create a new character that doesn't have this exoticised past. That would be an overly kind reading and it's the basis that the film's director used as his defense:

Looking at Marvel movies, I think that we're missing a major character that is Tilda's age and has this kind of strength and power. The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs.
 -Scott Derrickson

However, as I don't think this was Marvel Studios and Disney's reasoning behind the choice. Let's look at the new version then and what those reasons might be.


The 'Celtic' One

Tilda Swinton's character is Celtic. Well, that's nice, you can't be accused of exocitising your own culture after all (for 'own culture' also read 'dominant culture'). Here's Marvel's own defense:

Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast. [my emphasis, see below]

So, while I look forward to Tilda's Scottish accent (this is a lie, I'm not going to see the film) you can't help but wonder if the film-makers really did think, "you know there's just not enough female Scottish wizards in their 50's in film these days," which is factually true, but that doesn't make the basis of their initial claim truthful either. [I emphasised the section in the quote, because it is a blatant lie. The Ancient One was always a singular person, so Disney/Marvel can reshape their own MCU whenever it suits them I suppose...]

A simple answer is provided by former Doctor Strange co-writer (each of these Marvel films tends to go through many 'phases' of writing) C. Robert Cargill who states that the new character was created so that the film would still be marketable in China. Of the character he says:

He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullsh*t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’

Now, we could take this as our answer (like the Independent does) and blame China, but this is also too simplistic. I'm not saying that the Chinese Government don't rigorously censor foreign and domestic films, because it evidently does. So, although I'm distrustful of the Chinese Government, I find this answer simply pins the blame elsewhere. It also doesn't help this particular argument that C. Robert Cargill is such a monumental douchebag either, but one shouldn't allow their personal feelings to influence this sort of investigation. Therefore, I apologise, but he really is...

There’s not a lot of talk about, ‘Oh man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.’ Everybody kind of pats us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan. We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way. [my emphasis]

Whose fault is it then? Western cultural exoticism, Chinese corporate authoritarianism, or social justice warriors? Hey, how about, monumental Hollywood douchebags with no balls or ability to create a unique character that isn't merely a cultural stereotype?

Anyway, it seems that what Marvel Films is attempting to do is pit feminism against anti-racism (or at least, anti-cultural misappropriation, bigotry, lazy stereotyping and etc.) in a distraction tactic. In reacting before the presumed reaction they are making sure that the people who would normally point out the 'white washing' are too busy defending the casting of a woman in 'a man's role'.

The problem then, is the film producer's over-reliance on market research and on playing to their presumed audience demographics. Soul-less and by-the-numbers seem to describe this process, except that it is planned for a distinct purpose. To be as popular and make as much money as possible. I've spoken before about how these films are created as cultural events with more of an emphasis on marketing and merchandise than with creating a worthwhile or interesting story. Conniving and reprehensible might therefore be better terms.

In the end, Tilda Swinton's casting achieves one thing. It provides coverage about their film, even if it is negative in tone, still "there is no such thing as bad publicity" and this is further helped by the general feeling (helped by social media) that it's only someone's opinion when it is actually a valid criticism. The chances are that people have already made up their minds about the film, with those positively inclined to the film seeing detractors or even people trying to think rationally about it as 'bitter whiners' who like C. Robert Cargill suggests, "would be angry either way." It's always easier to dismiss something when it doesn't fit in with your simplistic worldview than try and engage meaningfully.

***

Postscript

Having now re-read this and slept on it, something I probably should have done rather just publishing it, I've decided that there's a few things I'd want to add or make clear, but rather than just insert them in the text like it was meant to be there already, I thought it was more honest to add a postscript (although I will change some text based on how it reads and fix grammatical errors).

If it wasn't clear, I'm NOT trying to excuse 'white washing' but detail that more is going on. However, racism with an excuse is still racism, so I'm not saying that Disney/Marvel's corporate 'white washing' is any more excusable than any other straight-forwardly bigoted comment would be.

Indeed, I note the similarities between Cargill's defitantly glib comments with the Disney/Marvel manicured double-speak that both come to similar things. Blaming others or trying to slide out of any personal blame. That the Disney/Marvel executives (who I would suggest they are comprised of 90% white males) claim 'diversity' of casting as an excuse, while all the time probably thinking like Cargill does and trying to second-guess what is popular and what they can get away with.

So, when I said that the cries of 'white washing' were incorrect, I meant that it is too simplistic and that it allows the executives to slide off the hook, when the whole process is much deeper and more entrenched than it might seem. It is made so you have to engage with them on their terms, terms that already have presuppositions built in.

Cargill's claim of, "it's not my fault, the Chinese made me do," is itself obviously baiting. Much like, "we took a guy's job and gave it to a woman." You can't complain, because we gave it to a woman! What are you sexist?

Relates to Disney/Marvel's claim, "we're not racist, we cast a black guy! Why are you complaining about this? What are you racist?"

When they use these accusations against those that would accuse them, one must start already defending their own position. As I said, you're already playing their game.

Anyway, all this will undoubtedly be lost under the positive reviews of the film, which just shows how they get away with it I suppose.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Harry Potter and the Nostalgia Industry of DOOM

"How can you write a review for something you haven't read?" JJ asked me incredulously, when I told her I was thinking about writing a piece concerning the new Harry Potter two-part-play and script-released-as-if-it-were-a-new-novel Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Nope


In truth, she has a point, but this isn't what this piece of writing is about. Well, not entirely, because although I will talk about the thing I haven't seen or read, it's mainly to describe the reaction to the thing and not a critique of the thing-itself.

Please note, I'm also going to talk about a thing that hasn't even been released yet. Namely, Fantastic beasts and where to find them, which we are now informed will continue to potentially a FIVE film series. Now, there's confidence for you!

*I hope it tanks something rotten*

Ahem. Now then, what I'd like to do is have a forensic look at the nostalgia industry, that is our popular entertainment, which has gained remarkable momentum in the last 10-15 years. There have always been films (and so forth) with a certain 'nostalgia to a bygone age' theme, but now it appears that every facet of popular Western American-influenced culture is brimming over with this nostalgia.

Several things:
1. What is Nostalgia and how is the phrase used?
2. This is a look at Harry Potter specifically and not the entirety of culture as is.
3. This is a description of entertainment as 'event' with a focus on 'things' 1 and 2.
4. This is bad, because passivity and lack of creativity.
5. Also, this is what the entertainment of a capitalist society looks like.
6. Ego destroys more than it creates.
7. Fantasy in a world of hurt.
8. The end... or is it? No. It is. Ooooorrrrr is it????

So, that's my overview. Stick around if still interested, or go back to your puerile superhero mush if not. ;-)

Finally, be forewarned that this essay presupposes you to be knowledgeable about Harry Potter and related topics without giving much explanation.

1.

NOSTALGIA
A compound word derived from the Greek, comprising nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain or ache), coined as a phrase in the 17th century (1668) by Johannes Hofer in a dissertation about Swiss soldiers suffering from severe ('often fatal') longings for home. By the 1830's it had come to mean any intense homesickness, where it was treated as a disease and listed in medical textbooks.

Our contemporary version is much different, however, and I would suggest that it has changed even more in recent years. Today, we think of nostalgia as a whimsical longing for our childhood years. Something that has been positively encouraged by companies that market and sell products that relate to the 1980's or 1990's depending on the age of the customer, but more about this aspect of the culture later.

Not my childhood


Primarily then, the focus of nostalgia, or the nostalgic, in our contemporary usage is seen as relatively benign, totally unlike the potentially fatal disease it once was described as. I'm not suggesting that nostalgia is secretly as dangerous as it once was considered, indeed, I wonder about how this would be described by modern psychology, but let's leave that discussion for the professionals.

The focus of our nostalgia is on the 'retro style' aspect, that is, the conscious adopting of fashion/music/culture of the recent past, which is approximately 20-30 years previously. Interestingly, this nostalgia is not necessarily for one's own childhood, many of those wearing Nirvana t-shirts are barely out of their teens and possibly not even born before Cobain died, or even of one's own culture - the predominant adoption is (of course) that of the USA. So, nostalgia as used now is a recreation of something that was once popular in a manner that is to be appreciated in an ironic or kitsch manner (or at the very least, bought).

2.

Harry Potter is different from this focus. It might not seem to be so very different anymore and as time has gone on, it has started to fall into the more common trends of the nostalgia industry, but it's beginning is based on the sort of popular craze that so many of us remember from our own childhoods. The difference with Potter is that it didn't go away, or cease to be important for so many of its readers and admirers. Only now, with film studios desperate for new/old IP's with which to develop their own 'Marvel-style' franchise, do we need to return to the 'Wizarding World' because nothing is more attractive than an IP that is still popular.

The first Harry Potter novel was released in 1997, the first film in 2001, and the series ended with the last book in 2007 and film in 2011. Quite a run; seven books, and eight films, all of which were immensely popular worldwide. So, it's not surprising the impact such a successful series would have upon popular taste, at least, that was the common conception and subject for debate in the late 1990's when Potter really started to take off. It was assumed that Potter would inspire a new generation of readers, something the older generation always worries about, i.e. the danger of the television, the internet, and even (I'm sure) the radio, on the minds of the young. However, to my mind, the problem has always been not with the particular technology itself, but the prevalence of various forms of distraction and the access to them. So, in my day, I read books because of the two channels showing children's programmes neither were showing what I wanted. There has been a sharp decline in children reading for pleasure in the last ten years or so, various studies have shown. So, it's not that much of a shock that Harry Potter didn't make children read again for long. They read the books, rather than wait for the films, they stopped reading the books when they finished. Some, it is hoped, did become converted to reading as an additional entertainment and educative resource, but local libraries are hardly busting at the seams with people. No, put simply, reading Harry Potter was popular with children for a while then most stopped reading.

Gotta catch 'em all!


3.

This relates to what I'm calling the 'cultural event' type of entertainment that although Harry Potter didn't invent, it certainly made it much more popular (and profitable!) than ever before. Now, if anything, that looks like a model that can be replicated and used over and over again. At least, that seems to be the way in which our creators and distributors (mostly the second group) of entertainment think. So, although the author/film-maker/whatever has a motivation to write a story that interests them, they also want to write something that will be published. The producers want something that will sell. The distributors want to make money.

So, while sourcing a new individual idea is a slow and risky business (what if people don't like it?) working with an established IP effectively removes the need for new creators. What we now need our 'creatives' to do, is to adapt something old into something new. Something popular, according to market research.

Hang on, I hear you cry, but Harry Potter wasn't doing this was it? True enough, Harry Potter was more of a mash-up of everything that might be remotely popular in children's (now, young adult) fiction. However, that was then and this is now. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, represents an attempt to rekindle interest in Harry Potter, which co-incidentally comes just before an attempt at a new 'Harry Potter' film series.

I won't yet discuss the possible 'author' motivation for Cursed Child (see 6) but want to mention instead how it was received and before that, how it was hyped.

Our entertainment has had marketing involved to a greater extent for some time now, indeed, the involvement of marketing in films (although in all areas of entertainment, this most of all) has increased to such a scale now that a film's marketing budget can sometimes exceed the production costs (this is rare and only in exceptional cases where the film is attempting to kick-start a new franchise - DC for example, but still average movie budget in 2007 was $65m with marketing adding an extra $35m on average). As the first Harry Potter went into production there was some speculation about how it would be cast and so forth, with all of this being exacerbated by the book's release four years earlier and a small (but rapidly growing) fan base. I say small, but it wasn't seen as such, at the time. Although it certainly is, in comparison to the various fan groups that follow a franchise. At any rate, the level of interest for each book and film rose before each release, to the point where even the less than spectacular films (in my mind films 4-8) were still propelled along by fan fervor.

That's one interpretation, another would be that as the Harry Potter series was 'setting the bar' (along with the Lord of the Rings franchise, at roughly the same time) it was given more of a chance. Other film series (with YA book tie-ins) have started, floundered, and been dumped (Golden Compass springs to mind) without any support.

Another evolving factor has been merchandise related to the film. At first, the only Harry Potter 'merchandise' was the books... this seems a cruel way of putting it. Pottermania was in full-swing before the film's release after all, but I would suggest these 'Potterheads' are the more devoted of the fans. To elaborate, not everyone that sees a Star Trek film is a Trekkie, but every Trekkie sees a Star Trek film (and complains that it's not accurate to the TV series).

Merchandise is now a massive factor in any of the large 'event' films, another excellent recent example is the new Star Wars film(s). Harry Potter merchandise is such a phenomenon that it exists separately from any of the new releases (Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts), although I expect to see a fair share of 1920's wizard-garb come the film's release.

Marketing hype and mass merchandising, two of the most important aspects of developing the cultural event. The third is, of course, the nostalgic-retro-style that provides 'nourishment' for both marketing and the merchandise. Even now, after only 15 years since the first film, still there has been enough time for people to look back in a warm nostalgic glow about their younger appreciation of the series. Indeed, as culture is now saturated with this type of view it would be difficult to escape this.

4.

So, what's wrong with all this? It's only a bit of fun, after all. True enough, this isn't a criticism of fantasy (see 7), but of the personal (and socio-economic, see 5) implications of this style of engagement with entertainment. So, it's not the entertainment per se, but rather the manner in which we are 'sold' it and expected to consume it.

The expectation, it seems to me, of Cursed Child (and Fantastic beasts) is that we should be grateful that more of our beloved franchise is being created. Those who would complain that JK had previously said that there would be no more Harry Potter and that they were happy with the series ending how it did (although many would also complain of the epilogue in the last book/film as unnecessary), were dismissed as moaning cranks or worse, as 'haters'.

There is a drive to make these events universally adored (or detested, but this is a subversion by the internet, cf. Ghostbusters 2016) without the nuance of critical analysis, something that the majority of 'fans' and a significant portion of the public are willing to go along with. This, I contend, is due to the massive amount of choice in our entertainments. Don't like this film, then try this other type of film, don't like films, here's a TV series, here's a computer game, here's a comic book series, here's...

Choice isn't bad, indeed, the opposite of too much choice (that is, no choice at all) isn't any better (perhaps even worse), but this isn't an argument for market saturation, because these 'choices' are hollow at best, as they all represent similar aspects of whatever is popular (or assumed to be popular).

They are to be 'enjoyed' passively and are designed rather than created.

Now, design isn't bad either, we need design, but not at the cost of creativity. I know this is an old and much traveled argumentative road to be drudging down, but give me a moment to describe why this is bad. This is not; every film must be an indie think-piece, nor is it, there is nothing new under the sun, nor is it, art must be unconstrained. The fashion of turning classic or popular works of literature into films is hardly new, nor is it a problem for the creative arts. Adapting one medium into another is potentially very interesting (thinking about Kubrick's The Shining), when done with the appropriate desire and it is still a creative process in this light. No, here's the problem, the production line approach, which I first glimpsed in the intractably awful Phantom Menace (released in 1999, I would suggest that this rather than Harry or LOTR was our starting point for the event phenomena). This approach attempts to detail plot points like a check list, giving all market researched areas of interest their allotted time and making sure that every nostalgic reference is run out.

The passive involvement is that of a consumer, "if you don't like it (whatever, it's all just opinions) then there'll be something that does cater to your market demographic, believe us, we've done the research!" You are not engaging with the thing anymore than you would with any other disposable consumer product, made only to be bought, used, and discarded.

5.

This is what our entertainment is now, a momentary paid distraction, devoid of any depth but replete with stylistic references. This is the entertainment of capitalism, consumerism, & of mediocrity.

It is the 'grown-up' method that began with the children's product-based-programming of the 1980's (Hasbro's Transformers, Mattel's He-Man, Kenner's Care Bears, and so on). Well, I suppose this makes some sense. This is the generation that grew up being marketed to from birth and now they are used to this approach, they are used to being customers, rather than critical viewers.

So, is art dead, has Harry Potter created the infantilised society that libertarian's tell us to fear?

Well, no, of course it's not that bad, but it's hardly ideal either and I can see the gradual shift myself. I'm not here decrying popular culture, but suggesting that our popular culture has been overtaken by the consumerist society it is part of. Entertainment is as shallow, plastic, and disposable as your Darth Vader PEZ dispenser, or authentic replica Hedwig plush.

Don't be mean about Hedwig!


And what is the attempt to own a part of the 'world' that your franchise belongs to? In a sense it seems like the tribalism of sports supporters. Your team might play terribly, lose constantly, cheat and so forth, but it is still your team, to cease in anything but total support would be traitorous. Thus, we are actively 'buying into' the world, whether that is a galaxy far far away, or the wizarding world, or whatever. "This is my identity. I bought it."

We are so desperate to label ourselves as individuals within a group, we submit passively to the consumer culture that effectively devalues the worth of any group. I would suggest a real cultural group worth joining is not one that can be so easily bought and sold, where being an 'authentic' supporter means buying the most up-to-date product.

Can people do this themselves; that is, be savvy consumers and question what it means to them to be a fan of Harry Potter (or whatever), to question the themes of the books/films and what they think of them? Absolutely yes, and this pragmatic response is the best that can be hoped for, acting within the constraints of normalcy within society. If that sort of concern matters to you.

Let's get back to Harry Potter, authentic or not.  It seems that Cursed Child was something different to the nostalgic franchise tie-in (like Fantastic Beasts), but what was it and, more importantly, why now?

The answer to the second question may be as simple as, because money, but as much as I'd hope not it doesn't seem that it can really be much more than either a vanity project or as franchise hype (for the forthcoming new series of films, five remember!).

6.

Let's consider JK herself and her motivation for approving Cursed Child. So, if we're discounting merely money (something she is not in short supply of) then there would have to be another reason for her revisiting such an iconic story-line. Adulation? It's not as if JK isn't constantly reminded how 'life-changing' her works have been for vast numbers of people, she is loved by many people across the world (and therefore also hated by many people across the internet). The books, films, and merchandise have steadily kept selling since the series supposedly finished five years ago. Interest in Harry Potter also continues, websites like Buzzfeed help, with a constant series of Harry Potter stories and quizzes. So, it's not as if it hasn't continued as a cultural 'institution' for all this time, what else is JK trying to achieve?

I wonder if the excessive pride of fame has something to do with it. There are many stories of the pressures of fame turning celebrities to bizarre and destructive behaviours, would the constant praise have an effect also? JK has been told for years that she "made a generation read," which is something I've disagreed with earlier (see 2), did she start believing this and then decide that she'd also make 'a generation' of people return to the theatre? Why indeed make the Cursed Child a theatrical play otherwise? A simple answer might be that the most obvious manner in producing the work, as a television series, would have been blocked by Warner Brothers (this idea suggested by JJ).

Why the theatre then? It's not as if it's something considered 'popular' whereas a television series made available worldwide through streaming is a much more contemporary manner in broadcasting your story. Theatre contrasted with Netflix seems positively archaic. Is the answer then, because she could? The only medium she has yet to influence?

The main writer, Jack Thorne, although best known for writing for various British television series (Skins, Shameless, The Fades, This is England) has written for theatre, radio, and film. So, he's versatile enough, but he isn't mainly known as a playwright. Another possible clue might be that he's never written a novel (published at any rate, I'd assume most writers of every type have to have a couple of 'unfinished' novels at any one point... I've three) and it is simply that novel writing is JK's territory and if she isn't to be the main author (but merely the name) then no one will be.

Many people* have complained that the script (for most the prospect of travelling to London to see a two part play is unrealistic due to distance and/or cost) reads much like a fanfic. It's interesting that Harry Potter is such an active fanfic writing community (or was, the fanfic phenomena seems to reside in the early days of the internet), something that in the early days JK was a proud supporter of, giving out 'fan website of the year' awards on her own website and generally being supportive of her readers. Once the film marketing machinery started moving and the commercialisation of nostalgia became wholesale, these little fan-sites started finding themselves getting shut-down orders from Warner Bros. That was the end of that, still, nobody blamed JK and they all moved on.

It's a first draft! Maybe they'll rewrite it.


* I've watched well over a dozen YouTube reviews of the Cursed Child script and all of them make this complaint. There are many more similar problems; that the character's act differently from the books, that there are a series of inconsistencies between how JK has detailed the world and how Jack Thorne interprets it, and so forth. They can get pretty specific and while many of these could be dismissed as merely an over-emphasis on detail by fanatics, the main problem is with the plot itself. Despite the play being well-produced and well-acted by the cast, when read in isolation, the script is muddled and deeply disappointing.

Should this disappointment matter? After all it is merely a work of escapist fantasy, all wrapped up with a nostalgia bow. Not only would we once say, "it's only a kid's film," or, "it's only a fantasy book," but now we also say, "it hasn't ruined your childhood."

7.

True, no one's childhood was ruined by Cursed Child. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how that statement should be taken, as I think it started as a joke at the expense of those fans who would over-react about Transformers (for example). That is, it was never that important anyway, so why make a fuss about it now? It's only a film, see it or don't see it.

Okay, sure, that's the pragmatic (although caustic) response. However, hopefully during the course of this piece I've managed to highlight that we shouldn't be passively accepting of our entertainment as this assembly-line disposable fluff. It should matter. Good entertainment should be the rule and not the exception.

I think this disappointment represents something else, something potentially important about how we relate to literature. When we enjoy a character in a piece of writing (or film) we are not necessarily simply noting the similarities with that character and our personality (or what we wish our personality to be) but we are, most of the time, simply enjoying the creator's depiction of that character. It is how they are described or portrayed that we find appealing. We aren't hoodwinked into believing in the reality of a fantasy figure, but instead we are finding another way to relate to the description of another person as this. We are enjoying that character, even if they are the villain (perhaps especially so). I'd suggest that this character-attachment is both more personal and more defined within literature (rather than film, television, theatre) because it depends on that one author's 'bringing to life' of the character combined with the fact that reading is such a personal introspective activity. In a film (f.e.) the character is portrayed by an individual actor, but that is the result of a process involving writers, directors and others. It is already an amalgam, but a written character is different, we as readers and as a community can come together to appreciate this, but the written description is final (the film image is also final, but holds more scope for interpretation based on its collaborative creation - speculating Tim Roth as Snape for example, but there is plenty of scope for interpreting written characters, writer dependent, of course).

So, when another writer describes the same character in a different way, or in a way that the vast majority of readers consider different (consensus holds sway here) then their reaction of being aggrieved seems appropriate. With a fan fiction, no matter how the character is treated, still we know that it is 'only a story' and can read, enjoy and dismiss it as we see fit. When the story has the 'stamp of approval' from the original author and it still doesn't work, then we wonder about the motivation or understanding of the author.

So far what I've described could be true of any dramatic character in fiction and despite any fantastical elements in a story, that the characters are still believable as 'human' (whether human or not) are central concerns for that story to make it 'authentic'. Some times of course, what counts as 'authentic' can be used to conceal another issue.

I won't go into a discussion of the uses and abuses of fantasy in literature and film here (instead I'll save that for another day), but will simply say that no matter how escapist the setting is, still it is the description of characters and the various character relationships (and how well, accurate, or pleasing they are) that is always the true heart of a story. Either that or go grand-thematic with huge sweeping narratives that, nonetheless, are made relevant due to their potential effects upon characters (I'm thinking of LOTR and its own connection to Norse myth, but then myth is a different style of narrativising story).

8.

All things end, even (thankfully) this essay.

However, when they remain popular there's the constant lingering thought that it could come back as good as before better! Apparently the film industry is immune to the folk logic of "you can never go home." Lucas tried to revisit the original Star Wars with the disastrous prequels trilogy, but he is hardly a lone failure. There a countless remakes, sequels, and reboots that refuse to let a lucrative franchise fade away, most do a terrible job of revisiting their old glories even when the original makers are involved. More surprising than Lucas in this regard is Peter Jackson's own return to Middle Earth and the awful Hobbit films (again, I'll talk about them another time). Why keep doing it? Why not let it end?

Why god, why?

Cash money son.

Lazy corporate hacks?

Our own unwillingness to let go of fond childhood memories even if they are false memories that have been created and marketed to us by the very same 'lazy corporate hacks'?

It's always easy to blame others, perhaps we (as consumers of entertainment) should have a look at our own unhealthy focus on things that have had their time.

When Fantastic beasts and where to find them was first released as a book in 2001 along with Quidditch through the ages, it was a relatively slim volume (128 p.) detailing various magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe written as if it was the actual book that Harry Potter owned, complete with 'notes in the Margins' by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It was a charity release by JK for Comic Relief.

Not a film
I suppose we can be glad that Quidditch through the ages hasn't been thought of as the basis for a film series (yet), but there is no story in either book, it's just fluff further detailing the world and sold for charity, which is noble enough. Indeed, the Comic Relief website informs me that the books made £17 million, which is frankly madness (but at least good causes profited). Although, I can't help but notice in the 2009 re-release of the books for 'charity' only a portion of the book's cost goes to comic relief (£1.15 per book).

I'd like to put this down in writing, so that when it happens I can point to it. I think that within 10-20 years the entire Harry Potter series will be remade, rebooted, rehashed or whatever. Perhaps they'll do it on HBO, much like the very successful Game of Thrones, a season per book, and that might interesting. I won't be watching though.

I even think that they might consider making Cursed Child into a film. Oh what, they already have? Urgh, well at least Daniel Radcliffe has shown some backbone and ruled out his return. Here are some very accurate statements by Radcliffe:

“There’s a part of me that’s like, some things are better left untouched.
“If we went back to Potter, there’s a chance we’d make what Star Wars: The Force Awakens was to the original Star Wars, but there’s also the chance that we’d make Phantom Menace.
“So I don’t want to go back to anything like that and maybe sour what people have already loved.”

Anyway, I suppose this depends on how well the Fantastic Beasts film does. Maybe they'll realise that enough people have moved on from Harry Potter, and then the studios will have to cannibalise some other IP. For me, I'll always have the Stephen Fry audiobooks. I've got my Harry Potter thanks, I don't need to buy your version.