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Etcetera #21: Comments, Phrenology, Solutionism

Matthew Culnane
Matthew Culnane
Etcetera is back from its brief hiatus and is still referring to itself in the third person! I hope you’re having a decent summer so far. Here are some of my favourite links from July.
See you next Friday.

Very expressed thoughts
I bought a Switch during the first lockdown last year and have enjoyed getting back into playing video games again, something I hadn’t done regularly for around 20 years. One of my first questions was “where is all the good writing about games?” That was answered by sites such as Critical Distance, which is excellent at curating the best of the more serious articles and critiques each week. Another that I found quickly was Nintendo Life. On the plus side, their reviews and features are generally excellent: their contributors are increasingly diverse and as a group they write well about the broader gaming industry and its culture (both of which are absolutely poisonous).
Where the site falls down is the constant stream of lesser-quality news stories and the exhortations of “Let’s hear your comments down below” that accompany each one. The site relies on advertising revenue and these tactics are in place to increase the number of page views. You do not, in most cases, want to read the comments section. The lower-wattage readers take this instruction very literally and there are a large number of poor quality contributions. Ask an idiot to vomit their opinion and they will. (I’m reminded of an early Frasier episode. Frasier: “Have you ever had an unexpressed thought?” Niles: “I’m having one now.”)
This reaches a crescendo whenever any staff write about representation. The comments are full of sealioning and logical fallacies and general culture war bullshit. There is some pushback, but this merely entrenches opinions among the smoothbrains. The excellent Kate Gray wrote a round-up of the best LGBTQ+ games on the system; the awful responses meant that the comment section on the piece was closed the next day. (It’s since been reopened.) Kerry Brunskill wrote a piece about Super Metroid and the joy of playing a game in 1994 that had a female protagonist. Comments were closed and again they only reopened once the incels had something else to complain about. Henry Stockdale wrote about how diversity and representation in games is (slowly) improving. At the time of writing this newsletter, the comments section remains closed.
These three articles were all posted in the time since I last sent a newsletter and it is as depressing as it is unsurprising that this is still happening. Everyone knows that it is rare to see an enlightened comment section on any site; the combination of angry man-children that frequent games sites and the relentless pursuit of pageviews through solicitation of opinion isn’t going to change anything.
See also: another gaming site, Kotaku, has a new editor in chief, Patricia Hernandez. Her introductory piece outlines what she thinks a gaming site should be, so of course the top comment begins “If you want your website to be more inclusive, shouldn’t you also take into account more conservative views? Shouldn’t you build bridges rather than ostracize people who may not fall as far left of the spectrum as you?” I mean really. Meanwhile one of the better science blogs has drastically changed its comments policy due to abuse and misinformation from COVID deniers. This is why we can’t have nice things, and so on.
Etc.
  • We talk about marketing generations a lot here. Conclusive proof that I am Gen X.
  • An overview of queer coding and queerbaiting in animation. Queer coding is where characters are hinted at in multiple ways as being queer without explicit confirmation, usually to avoid censorship. This is neither positive nor negative—for the most part, it’s a way to overcome an obstacle. Queerbaiting is much more unscrupulous. It hints at queerness in an attempt to attract a more diverse audience, but without including any proper queer representation. This is bad. Don’t do it.
  • But I was promised jetpacks! A history of future personal flying transport.
  • As previously mentioned, the impending release of Metroid Dread has generated a bunch of videos and takes and video-takes on the series’s history. Super Metroid Is The Ideal Video Game Adventure is one I strongly agree with, which will come as no surprise to long-time readers.
  • No cults, no politics, no ghouls: how China censors the video game world. A fascinating look at what China deems acceptable in games and culture more generally. I was particularly interested to learn that time travel in games is best avoided; it is speculated that this is to avoid people imagining situations where they could go back and change the ruling party’s regime.
  • Speaking of China, here’s something on phrenology and Orientalism. You’ll probably be familiar with stories such as that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. This and other examples are debunked as “selective interpretation of morphemes divorced from actual etymology and best left for a fortune cookie or motivational horoscope.”
  • The inconsistencies of English spelling and pronunciation derive from two key things. The huge range of dialects and languages spoken by invaders and neighbours over the years threw up a wild mix of variations and caused a marked difference between written and spoken English; this instability and uncertainty was at its height just as the printing press was introduced, and the new technology entrenched certain usage and standardised words in weird ways which still persist.
  • Dirtbag medievalism begins, let’s say, with Conan the Barbarian; it is a kind of meta-medievalism, distilled through the internet and pop culture … Dirtbag medievalism is a vibe.”
By Patrick Concepcion
By Patrick Concepcion
  • Why I’m a proud solutionist’ is IMO a flawed take on solutionism, the idea that every societal problem we face has a technological fix. Huge neoliberal energy emanates from solutionists; the idea that “well, technology and entrepreneurial innovation got us into this mess, so it’s bound to get us out of it” is the product of some forced woodenheaded thinking. The French theorist Paul Virilio once wrote that “when you invent the ship you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you invent the plane crash […] Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” The article claims to eschew positivity or negativity but solutionists, never better eviscerated than by Evgeny Morozov, always bring to my mind the classic “dig up, stupid!” moment from The Simpsons.
  • A more nuanced piece on techno-optimism.
  • ‘Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work.’ The similarities between video games and C21st work.
  • Clairo’s new album Sling is wonderful. More than a hint of Carole King and Karen Carpenter here.
  • As is Maridalen’s self-titled release—a slow, atmospheric jazz album that recalls modern film scoring.
  • Speaking of film music, ‘trailercore’ is when a movie trailer “uses a cover version of a familiar song that’s been slowed down and stripped back, with added emotional emphasis to the lyrics, usually overlaying them with darker meaning. Oh, and the song is usually a nauseatingly on-the-nose match for some basic idea in the movie’s premise.”
  • An oral history of Independence Day.
  • CARI, the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, catalogues consumer aesthetic trends. It’s a treasure trove. The image below represents Ultramodern Revival, an aesthetic that reminds me very strongly of things like Velvet Goldmine, Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’, Air’s Moon Safari et al. It’s described by CARI as a “very late 90s - early 2000s revival of Supergraphic Ultramodern. Supergraphics, bright color palettes, and sleek forms mix with Millennium Disco kitsch, evolving from the Gen-X Soft Club nostalgia for the 1970s.”
Ultramodern Revival
Ultramodern Revival
Housekeeping
There’s been a bigger than expected increase in subscribers since I last sent one of these. (Where did you all come from? Clearly the lesson is to never send a newsletter and to watch my subscriber count swell.) For newcomers, here are some things you might want to know.
The newsletter is free for all while being powered by members (£3/mo or your regional equivalent). There are no current member perks other than a warm sense of self-satisfaction. Should member numbers grow enough to make it worthwhile, we can have member-only issues if that’s what people would like. Click on the link at the bottom of the email for how to become a member.
There’s an Etcetera playlist featuring a mix of newer music that’s been featured in the newsletter plus reader recommendations (reply and let me know) and anything else that grabs my fancy.
It’s genuinely always good to hear your thoughts and link recommendations. Reply and it’ll only go to me. After having watched the first series of I Think You Should Leave multiple times, I only just got around to watching the second series, so I am particularly keen to hear which sketches are your favourites. I’d also be delighted if you wanted to share this newsletter or its profile page on your social media platform of choice.
By day I work as a freelance digital marketing and communications consultant. Think accessibility, content strategy, UX, technical SEO, PPC… newsletters? If you need any help with your site and/or content, you can read more about what I do on my site. (It needs updating but you’ll get the gist.)
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Matthew Culnane
Matthew Culnane @coldbrain

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