Putting away Chekov’s gun

Abigail Thorn
PhilosophyTube Feb 21 Chekhov: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story - if there is a gun on the wall in the first chapter it must go off by the end! Nabokov: My father owned 500 guns that I will describe obliquely and at length. None of them are relevant but they all made me horny.

Recently the popular youtuber, Abigal Thorn posted this joke to her twitter account. On the surface, this is a pretty typical Twitter-style sensible chuckle. Most people with any familiarity with the authors mentioned would get the joke easily enough; it’s hardly like Nabokov’s tendency toward baroque prose and toward sexually charged topics isn’t well known.

But she is picking at the edge of something interesting and relevant here with regard to the structural concerns of a novel. To whit: why are parsimonious novels? In the case of Chekhov, the reasons for his desire toward narrative utility and parsimony are easily identified. A playwright has a very limited time in which to tell his story, a short story author has strict length limits imposed by her style. But novels are not generally intended to be read in a single sitting like a play or a short story. And certainly the origin of the novel wasn’t one particularly concerned with parsimony. One of the earliest novels ever written, arguably the first structurally modern novel depending on how you choose to define the term, was Romance of the Three Kingdoms which was ~800,000 words. Moving forward to more modern works, many novels (the Count of Monte Cristo, David Copperfield and the first structurally modern European novel – Don Quixote) each weighed in at significantly over 300,000 words. And, of course, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu clocked in at 1,267,000 words (I do need to get around to reading this one but it’ll have to wait until I’ve cleared out the reading back-log a bit.) Meanwhile the writing advice given to authors is to put their novels pretty carefully between a range of 70,000 to 120,000 words. This is, on its own, a strange discrepancy. But a survey conducted in 2015 demonstrated another interesting trend: book lengths on high-selling books increased by a mean rate of 4.4% between 1999 and 2015. While this survey was not academically rigorous, it does provide a reasonable benchmark to consider that the length of novels is growing. The same survey also posited that the range of possible word-lengths was growing. So we have here two obvious trends. First, sometime between the time of the 19th century classics and the end of the 20th century, the length of the novel shrank and standardized. Second, throughout the 21st century, this trend seems to have reversed as novels increased in word length, and range of length diversified.

The answer, of course, comes down to the material circumstances of novel publishing: money and distribution. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, one of Jin Yong’s most significant and popular works was published as a serial in a newspaper – its 918,000 word count didn’t have a material impact on distribution or on profit because it came out in newspapers of generally uniform size. Its column inches may have been considered, but considering the popularity of the author’s fiction in the newspaper, I doubt too many limits were put on him there. In addition, as it was published as a serial, the author was free to take his time getting where he was going.

This serial publication was a feature of many early novels. The Count of Monte Cristo and David Copperfield were published as serials. Don Qixote was printed in exceptionally small production runs and books were shipped overseas in order to fetch higher unit prices. The idea of the standard novel length wasn’t so necessary because there wasn’t yet, standardized distribution of novels or even standard pricing.

However, starting in the late 19th century this changed. We can begin to see the progressive standardization of book distribution in moments like the founding of the International Publishers Association which, it should be noted, was formed principally to protect copyright for publishers. A commodification of a market requires, as part of it, a standardization of the market. Audiences for books cannot effectively purchase books if they don’t know where to buy them and if they aren’t able to budget their cost. This process coincided with a general process of maturation of a form of epistemological framework that informed society – what Foucault would call a disciplinary society.

Disciplinary societies thrived on standardization, as much of the demands of the disciplinary society had to do with the demands for workers in assembly-line facilities. But this had a side-effect of creating a culture much like an assembly line: people would have distinct roles, like the parts of a machine. Each would serve this role and the output of one person’s effort would become the initial input of another’s. This was reflected across institutions as a process of movement from one enclosed space to another: from the family to the school, from the school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory. And of course from any of these to the prison or the hospital when a subject needed correction beyond what could be provided by the more normative disciplinary institutions.

This can be seen as a process of standardizing and regulating bodies; is it any wonder a similar process happened to bodies of text?

And so an author would produce a manuscript that would be bought by a publisher. The manuscript would then be corrected by editors who would send it to a printer. The books would be bound and shipped to a distributor and the distributor would then apportion books to booksellers for the consumption of an audience. And all of this labour had to meet assembly-line like requirements. Publishers needed to produce enough volume of manuscript to make sales targets as would distributors and as would book sellers. And standardization is at odds with irregularity in form and in distribution. Booksellers, depending on a standard throughput of books to make their profits, measured books in shelf-inches, that is the number of inches wide a spine of a book was displayed on a shelf. Books on a shelf of irregular width made for a challenge to sell. And books of multiple volumes also introduced irregularity in purchase patterns. Rather than producing seven volumes of Proust all in a go, or for that matter one volume of Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien originally intended, it was better to apportion books into smaller, shorter, and more standard volumes. Longer works could be serialized with a relatively standard release schedule of one year per volume. Failure to meet that standard still provokes considerable distress among the book buying public. By the time that disciplinary societies were declining, this had come to be what is considered, in the generally received wisdom, to be the standard length of 75,000 to 120,000 words for a book targeting adult audiences. This was not a reflection of any sort of artistic ideal, unless we want to suggest that Proust is more artistic than Chekov because he wrote long books, or alternatively, that Chekov was more artistic in his parsimony.

Of course, nothing ever stays the same forever, and in time the patterns of the disciplinary society gave way to what Gilles Deleuze described as a society of control. Within the societies of control, this sense of moving from one enclosed space to another was supplanted by a constant process of modularity; Deleuze described people as dividual. What we were wasn’t some indivisible soul to be perfected but rather modular beings. The institution of the school gave way to lifelong learning. The factory gave way to the corporation and the watchword to the password. And the bookseller gave way to Amazon.

The arrival of Amazon to the book publishing industry was likely one of the most disruptive moments since the beginnings of standardization a century prior. And simultaneous to Amazon’s arrival came another technological change with the e-book reader. Suddenly spine inches didn’t matter. The bookseller was gone – Amazon is more akin to a distributor, selling books by the box from a warehouse. And even then, in many cases, the physical media upon which a book was printed was gone, replaced with the pure information of digital ephemera.

Of course this had its threats. The ability of Amazon to reach into a users e-book reader and withdraw access to a downloaded book was remarked upon by many people as shocking. But I suspect it would have elicited a shrug from Deleuze. Such antics are the reasons he admonished readers to search for new weapons. And so we have a narrative that explains the rise and fall of the standardized novel. It was a product of disciplinary societies that was rendered obsolete by the advent of the societies of control.

But this isn’t the only reason for parsimony in fiction, is it?

We still, thirty years after Deleuze heralded the advent of the societies of control, council parsimony in writing. The advice of Chekov, to only show those elements that are relevant to the story, and of Hemmingway, to write with careful precision and minimal extraneous language, remain received wisdom among authors. Unbound as we are from the tyranny of the shelf-inch why can’t we put down Chekov’s gun?

I will admit that I used to be very much in the camp that this was an artistically superior decision. It created a clear text, one which guided an audience through and told a story in a straightforward way that didn’t have the author’s own cleverness get in the way of the message being communicated. I largely repudiate that previously held position now. Rather, I have come to be much more firmly in favour of artistic agency. I think an artist should create the work of art they desire to create, unbound by the expectation of the audience. An audience’s response to the art is critical to the ongoing process of creation of art. But it should never be something an artist attempts to anticipate; if a dividual is operating in the mode of the artist they must set aside the mode of the critic, or the fan. This isn’t who they are in this moment. This perspective situates art as a moment within a flowing process: from artist to critic to artist to critic, art rising and falling like a phoenix. Any given work is just an explosion of fire in this cycle. Why should an artist anticipate that an audience wants a straightforward story, told without artifice? Is this not, ultimately, just a call for unchallenging and standardized art?

Adam Shaftoe, a dear friend and an excellent art critic, was talking with me about this topic recently and suggested that this is because these straightforward, easy, texts are still, ultimately, more marketable than something more baroque. Audiences enjoy the sensation of anticipating a story. They like the excitement of a clean narrative that moves like an arrow from a beginning to an ending that they can see approaching from the start.

Amusingly, this puts narrative parsimony at odds with spoiler aversion. After all, there can’t be any reversal too surprising or you’ve failed to adequately foreshadow. As one famous author recently remarked: a book can tolerate one ridiculous coincidence but if too many pile up, you lose suspension of disbelief. This is not to say narrative parsimony is anti-artistic. I’m not suggesting that a fondness for clear, declarative language or a distaste for unnecessary adverbs is corrosive to art in the way that franchise entertainment is. Rather, it’s an error of authors to treat this stylistic choice as the only right one. It is fully possible that the art an artist desires to create is a meandering and florid affair showing off their ability to navigate baroque sentence structures, piling coincidence upon coincidence and adverb upon adverb into a vast ants-nest of a story. And if the artist can execute this art in a way that pleases them and that communicates a cohesive message which is able to survive its antinomies, this is a successful work of art.

It may, however, not be commercially successful. And so, once again, we approach the point where the influence of capitalism proves a threat to the diversity and openness of artistic creation. The demands of marketing remain, as always, at odds with the demands of the artist because an artist savagely creates and destroys with little regard for little matters like ownership, markets or profitability. Bataille saw art, especially grand art, as a use of the accursed share: an output of waste. This is at odds with the corporate need to acquire, too accumulate and to grow. Nothing should be needlessly expended. Nothing should be wasted. Not even words.

A little post-script

I just wanted to add that my next blog post may be in a couple of weeks. I’m presently reading the first volume Anna Holmwood’s excellent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – A Hero Born – and do intend a major essay about this translation. When I last read Legend of the Condor Heroes, it was only available as a fan translation and this represents the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read two very different translations of the same book. As I mentioned previously, Legend of the Condor Heroes is a long book and I suspect the Holmwood translation, by the time I get through all four volumes, will clock in north of 500,000 words. It may take me a minute to read it all. Don’t worry. I’m not gone. I’m just reading a long book.

The vexatiousness of the culture wars in SFF – Baen’s Bar and the fantasy of total community

Oh did we all think that ended with the collapse of the Sad Puppy movement into genral Trumpism? Of course it didn’t. And the latest salvo is turning into a wild ride.

Buckle in.

On February 15, 2021, Jason Sandford published an exposé of a pattern of discourse at Baen’s Bar – a forum managed by Toni Weisskopf on behalf of the storied SF publisher Baen Books – which included racist comments and, most alarmingly, advocacy for violence perpetrated not just by regular participants at the forum but also its moderation team.

Sandford started receiving messages which he interpreted as death threats from prominent Baen’s Bar forum members. This was reported on by File 770 with a link to a twitter thread in which Sandford compiled screenshots of the threatening messages, however Sandford has since locked his Twitter account and these screenshots are unavailable at this time. That being said, I did see them prior to Sandford locking his account, and they include the “helicopter ride” meme which is a far-right reference to the Death Flights of the fascist Pinochet regime of Chile.

Further calls for violence have surfaced on Twitter – the screenshot above is an example available at time of posting which references Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero of Rome burning Christians as lamps – and so Sandford’s decision to take his online presence more private is not surprising.

Weisskopf closed Baen’s Bar for the immediate future, stating:

We have received no complaints about the content of the Bar from its users.
That said, it has come to our attention that allegations about the Bar have been made elsewhere. We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.

How reassuring that the users who said, “I can see a smallish force with good skills at explosive handling, bringing a large city to its knees just through a few well-placed booms at some of the points I mentioned,” and, “Trump losing is a good thing. IF he had won things would be better for a while but the Dims would keep up the garbage. Now they will do the stupid power mad grab that will set off what NEEDS to happen. Which is ACW21. Those that claim its already happening as usual cannot understand reality. A real civil war is killing in job lots and all that goes with it,” saw no reason to complain that a privately operated message board allowed them to express such violent rhetoric openly and unopposed. It is also worth noting that, for all of Weisskopf’s claims to be an advocate for unrestricted free speech, certain topics are, in fact, banned at Baen’s Bar, such as Mercedes Lackey and her fraught relationship with the publisher. So we can posit that Baen, as a company, finds speculation as to the specific tactics of a conservative-led civil war within the United States to be less controversial than the idea that some authors did not enjoy good working relations with Jim Baen.

Regardless, this has led to profuse defensive posturing from all the ususal suspects, including, as reported by File 770 at the link above, attempts to downplay the rhetoric from David Weber, claims that Baen Books was “attacked by cancel culture” from Larry Correia and far more unhinged statements from the various sad-rabids who operate at the periphery of the science fiction world.

Now simultaneous to all of this, Toni Weisskopf was scheduled to be the guest of honour at Discon III – the 2021 Wordcon, an in-person science fiction convention being held in Washington DC. In the light of the report on Baen’s Bar, and Weisskopf’s response to it, there has been pressure applied to Discon III to disinvite her as guest of honour on the basis that her presence would make the science fiction convention an unsafe environment for reasons other than the inadvisability of holding a convention in the age of COVID-19.

And here we return to two central questions that have been at the heart of genre fiction’s long-running culture war, just who is this community and what, if anything are its standards?

We have here a situation where the genre fiction “communty” consists of several disparate actual groups of people. These people have mutually exclusive definitions of the ideal present notwithstanding what they may want to see in fiction about the future, the past or other worlds. The attempts of mass conventions like DisCon III to serve these vastly disparate communities means it’s ultimately impossible to serve any.

Now I’m honestly quite shocked that there is going to be an in-person WorldCon this year. Between international travel restrictions and the clear and present danger of mass gatherings, it really feels like a live convention in 2021 is unsafe quite regardless of who the editor guest of honour is. With this said, while I do believe that Sandford turning over this particular rock exposed the peril lying under the surface of science fiction I don’t think de-platforming Weiskopf is going to make the convention any less dangerous for anyone unwilling to tow the American conservative line. Frankly, Toni Weiskopf isn’t the problem, she’s merely a symptom of it. Baen, and its stable of Trumpist malcontents is in fact only a symptom of the systemic problem that is the faulty assumption at the core of the SFF communities that there is some overarching and totalizing community for all to contribute to.

It was never true.

All that has changed is that those people who once hadn’t enough power to speak out about John Campbell’s racism, Orson Scott Card’s homophobia or Harlan Ellison’s busy hands have achieved enough power through adoption of new technology, changes in social understanding and various civil rights movements to fight back against the people who once kept them silent.

And the ideological descendants of these once-powerful men are the constituent backbone of the reactionary movement within SFF communities. And that brings us to the unfortunate materiality of these “culture wars” because we are in a position where we will have to fight, rhetorically, for command over what any genre community actually is.

We do have to do the work of excluding people and that probably includes Weisskopf. Because she is a part of the overall reactionary movement in genre and that movement must be entirely excised if there is to be anything like an actual community here. It is insufficient to cow the reactionary movement, tell them they have lost and allow them to sit and stew, because as we can see from their various words, they fantasize about doing real violence to us.

The damage is done for Worldcon 2021. If Weisskopf is barred, the convention will be unsafe every time a reactionary raises her de-platforming as a grievance. If she is not, the convention will be unsafe because of the risk potentially violent reactionaries will see her presence as a victory. And above all this looms COVID-19 and the questionable decision to hold an in-person convention in the United States in 2021 at all and for any pretense. However the idea that has been percolating for a while, that concoms must show some discernment in selecting who is considered within the community, has become much more pressing. We have moved beyond it being enough to point at this or that missing stair and ask why he was allowed to buy a membership. We must start considering the ideological messaging of our shared spaces. There is no neutral space in which a fascist and a socialist can both feel safe. Sides were drawn long ago and the people bound up in the liberal delusion that the rift is curable need to let go of the fantasy that they can exist without ideology.

We forget that we are all within our ideologies at our peril. Baen’s Bar is a community of between 1,000 and 8,000 people who share a lot of ideological markers. They know and are committed to their ideology and I find it revolting. The Baen’s Bar members are not part of any community I consider myself a part of, even if they like books with space ships too.

Update: February 19, 2021: DisCon III has announced that they have removed Weisskopf as the editor guest of honour:

We knew simply saying those words with no actions to back them up would be unacceptable. Too often, we have seen individuals and organizations say they are on the right side of issues yet do nothing to act on those words. We knew we had to take a hard look at our own position and take action based on our established policies.

As a result, after discussion with her, we have notified Toni Weisskopf we are removing her as a Guest of Honor for DisCon III.

We know this decision was not as quick as some of you would have wanted, and we understand your frustration. Our committee’s leadership was always in full agreement that there was a fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question.

I will say this is a good statement, and specifically the admission that there is a, “fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question,” strongly echoes my point previously – that there is, in fact, a fundamental ideological disconnect between the Baen’s Bar community and other SFF communities.

I still question the advisability of holding a Worldcon live this year and hope they make the decision to transition to an online format. In addition, I do stand by my statements that censuring Weisskopf is unlikely to create a tangibly safer environment for convention-goers.

With that said, I suspect that, with regard to this specific incident, the concom for DisCon III did the best they could in a bad situation,

1: ACW2 stands for “American Civil War 2”

On the artist – critic relationship, a response to “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy,” by Stitch

This letter serves as a brief response to the excellent editorial recently brought forward by Stitch at Teen Vogue, “On Fanfiction, Fandom and Why Criticism is Healthy.” In it, Stitch puts forward an argument for why there should be space for criticism within fanfiction communities, and I do agree with the general broad strokes of their assertion.

Stitch explores, in much the same vein that I did, how fannishness leans into a sense of enthusiasm that precludes other emotional responses to art being seen as valid and proposes that, again as I have in the past, that critique of an artform represents a legitimate form of art enjoyment. A critic enjoys the act of criticism. However I do have a small dispute with some of Stich’s framing, which I hope they will take in good faith.

Specifically, Stitch does something very common in discussion of “fan” phenomena and imagines fandom as a territory or space. Fandom, in such a structure, is the terrain in which artists responding to a work, critics dissecting it and enthusiasts of an artwork congregate and share their thoughts. The conflict that thus arises is one of belonging. Fans are people who like a thing which is why it seems like critics must fight for a space within fandom. The critical impulse to reveal a piece of media’s secret contours and to, as Lyotard might put it, “work as the sun does when you’re sunbathing or taking grass,” often seems at odds with the enthusiasm of the fan in much the same way that the enthusiasm of a butcher might seem out of place at a meeting of a pot-bellied pig fancier’s club.

I do think this is a mistake – fandom isn’t a place you are so much as a face you present. What’s more, people are dividual and may present different faces at different places and different times. So when I talk about the contradictions between these faces of response to art, please don’t think I’m totalizing any given person to just one of these identities that they must choose like some team. Rather I’m talking about the tensions that occur when engaging with art.

I tend to treat response to art as having three principal faces with the third divided into two sub-modes. The first is indifference. The indifferent response to art could be mild amusement or even strong revulsion but it is a reaction that desires to disengage from the art. It doesn’t find the art something it wants to respond to. The indifferent has no interest in any form of communication with the art.

The second face is the fannish face. This is representative of the person who wants to express enthusiasm for the art. It is something of a limited opposite to the indifferent face except that enthusiasm is the only allowable mode of response. People presenting a fannish face, defined by their absolute enthusiasm for a work, frequently act as gatekeepers and norm-setters. I dislike the extent to which this face has been given precedence in discourse surrounding art, including the extent to which the idea of the “fan” has come to subsume the final face which is that of the artist/critic.

I am uncomfortable with the categories of the fan-artist, the fan-critic or the fan-critic-of-fan-artist. This is because, while there is vast overlap between the revelations of the artist or critic, I find both of these responses to art to be mutually exclusive from fannish totalizing enthusiasm. A fan polices the boundaries of spoilers because the being in the know is one of the perimeters that delineates who may authentically wear the fan face.

An artist authentically presents the face of the artist by doing art. A critic authentically presents the face of the critic by doing critique. Neither of these play nicely with fannish territoriality. Now, again, people are dividual. A person can be a fan and be an artist both. But thy cannot be a fan in the moment they go about creating art. The “fanfiction writer” is thus a misnomer. There’s no fan in their fiction. They are an artist responding to art.

Enter the critic. If we treat (fan)fiction as a form of responsive art, a transformative repetition that takes the familiar elements of the art and creates something new from it, then we approach that non-productive boundary of undifferentiation from which production arises. The artist destroys to create. But this destruction is not uncontrolled. The process of disassembling art, revealing its secrets, spreading out its parts, “like smooth sleeping dolphins,” is the act of critique, which, Lyotard also reminds us, is a form of religious act. I would say it becomes something of a ritual sacrifice, ending the old artwork in a manner that makes space for new growth. While, for some artists, the critique – the moment of sacrifice where the work upon the altar is cut apart and its secrets revealed – is the end, artists must also be critics to create art. They must come to know the secrets of a work to transform it.

Artists are sometimes tricked into believing their passion is equivalent to fannish enthusiasm. Blake understood this intimately when he said, “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton’s fannish enthusiasm for God rings hollow next to the damning critique of the Devil. This is because, as Blake says, Milton was a true poet; and a true artist is also a critic in their nature rather than a fan.

I believe (fan)fiction writers would be well served to remember that they are also critics. If their work creates critique all this means is that the art has broken the barrier of the indifferent face and inspired another person to engage authentically with it. Enthusiasm is a childish aim in the appreciation of art next to the sacred sacrifice of critique and the promethean act of creation. The territory of fandom is an imagined place. The police on the borders are children who, by the act of showing only enthusiasm for art, cannot defend it.

Where there are artists there are also critics. The face of the critic is indivisible from the face of the artist. An artist enjoys their art and so too does a critic enjoy their critique. I derive as much passion, as much joie de vivre from savaging a truly awful art as I do from gushing about a true masterpiece. Excluding the more frightening passions of the critic ultimately only harms artists. (Fan)fiction writers, embrace the satanic critic. You are of our party anyhow.

A Moral Case for Spoilers

Phillipa Georgiu will return to Star Trek, Quicksilver will return to the MCU and it is immoral to participate in the policing of spoilers.

Now first I want to be precise when I talk about the word, “moral.” The boundaries between concepts are unclear. We have two questions that are particularly difficult to separate – the question of what is good and the question of what is beautiful: Ethics and Aesthetics.

There are many methods of chopping these two discussions of value in order to say this is one thing or it is another. It is good to dispense justice. A painting is beautiful; but there is certainly overlap. The presence of religion gives testament to this as many religious programs attempt to simultaneously define both what is good and what is beautiful in connection to each other. A Christian might say it is Good to live in God’s divine light – but preference for light over darkness is an aesthetic concern.

The truth is that humans don’t easily divide the good from the beautiful. A bigot, upon seeing two men kissing, might excuse himself by saying, “It’s not that what they are doing is wrong, I just don’t want to have to look at it.” These edge conditions multiply persistently wherever we might look for them. How many people would think they have an ethical obligation to their neighbours to keep the façade of their home beautiful? Morality, in the sense I am deploying it here, is to describe a thing that has one foot each in the realm of the ethical and of the aesthetic.

For instance, it is an ethical proposition to suggest an actor has less bargaining power than a multinational corporation. If an actor, in his enthusiasm for a role, announces he will play a part, but the studio, for reasons of marketing, wishes to keep that role silent and the studio then punishes the actor we can hardly side against the actor. After all, some corporations might monopolize the opportunities for an actor to ply his trade; he may have no choice but to sign odious confidentiality clauses or choose against having a career. When facing such a systemic inequality we can hardly call these contracts ones that are negotiated in good faith. And if a corporation has compelled a worker to accept unpleasant working conditions on fear of being unable to work, how could a decent and clear-thinking person say that this worker just should have honored his word? The words that came out of his mouth were never his. This is an ethical concern.

However the problem of spoilers is far more involved merely than a single material relationship between a worker, or even a class of workers, and a powerful avatar of capital. It involves both other ethical concerns, power relationships and the question of group formation, but also questions of what makes for good art.

But before we can address these questions we must first answer a more basic question: what, really, is a spoiler?

To spoil is to rot or to put beyond all utility. Food spoils when eating it makes you sick. But art isn’t food. The problem, I think, is that franchise media wants to make art into a meal: not into something an audience engages with, enters into communication with. But something they dumbly consume. But if art spoils in the same way food spoils, this raises a problem: why would knowing the shape of the plot prior to consuming a work of art make one ill? Perhaps it would be best to push back against the idea of art as something we eat, and to look at art as a vehicle of communication instead. So how do we decompose the utility of art as a vehicle of communication?

We could suggest that a work of art is spoiled when the artist or some third party, through malice or error, eliminates its ability to communicate a coherent message. We would have to put the art into a position of such irreconcilable internal contradiction that it could say nothing at all to truly spoil a work of art.

Monkey Jesus is not a spoiled artwork

Even if we look at grand artistic mistakes such as the amateur restoration off the Borja Ecce Homo fresco, we can see the communication of meaning within the art. Christ’s occluded black eyes and faint hint of a mouth, the abstracted plane of his nose and the indistinct boundaries of hair and flesh all present a contradiction with the subject: Ecce Homo. And yet, behold the man! “Monkey Jesus,” gives a wonderful hint into the animal character of humanity, it puts lie to the suggestion of divinity in a way which still creates a meaningful and significant, if accidental message.

Cecilia Giménez’s Ecce Homo is not a spoiled artwork. It is, in fact, a shockingly successful artwork, as her attempts to restore the fresco, and the beautiful and surprising way she failed to restore it have attracted increased attention to her community and her church. If this Ecce Homo can survive such a transformation unspoiled, why are franchise artworks so fragile that they collapse if only the aspect of surprise is taken from them?

Because this is ultimately the only thing spoiled for the audience. The surprise. Are we, as a culture, so limited that we believe the surprise of reversal to be something fundamental to the quality of art? What then of Romeo and Juliet? How are we to enjoy the art of this famous tragedy when it begins:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Emphasis mine)

Any art so vacuous that it is ruined beyond recovery simply by the knowing of a fact is not art worth anyone’s effort. As such we should contend that, no, art is not spoiled even when the surprise is. But the thing is that while policing of spoilers is about knowledge, it isn’t really about surprise. Rather it’s about secrecy.

Specifically, the spoiler is the inevitable companion of the mystery box. So whose experience of art is truly spoiled by the spoiler? It is the marketer. This becomes painfully clear when we look at how artists are put behind the demands of marketing for secrecy. Tom Holland is given incomplete scripts. He is not allowed to know the secrets of the movie in which he is the star because of the fear he might disclose a secret. His ability to be an actor is hampered so that the marketers can have their way. We cannot have the audience knowing Quicksilver will in fact return before the moment, even if any given audience member with even the slightest spark of critical insight might mark it as likely, because our marketing cycle is built upon the revelation to the press at this time or that of the cameo, of the actor who plays the role, and of all the mystery boxes that will be put in view of the audience with this revelation. And, with its dependence on continuity, and on the interconnection of properties, especially in the case of the MCU with its heavy dependence on lore delivered via cameo-coda, the franchise becomes precisely this: a box containing boxes, containing boxes, containing boxes. Each box carries the promise that there is something inside, some meaning, a kernel of a reason for the art. But the meaning is nothing but an empty box and the endless deferment of the moment of transformation in favour of simulations of catharsis. We cannot spoil the franchise; it’s already rotted to bone, to dust, to void.

Ultimately, the purpose of a franchise artwork is not about anything resembling meaningful communication between an artist or artists and an audience. It’s about the construction of a community, a lifestyle, a fandom. Fandom, with its desire to catalog, to be encyclopedists, to be those who are in the know, polices the spoiler because it allows them to identify those who are to be included as fans and those who are not. An altogether common, and altogether revolting conversation about a work of art on social media will begin: “No spoilers, but OMG, franchise title.” This is a is such an awful exclusionary tactic. It says, “I would love to talk to you, but only after you pay the franchise owner with your time and money.” It denies that anyone might engage with a work of art but as a fan. It denies that any passion should be allowed in response to art but enthusiasm.

This idea, that only enthusiasm is permitted in public discourse surrounding art is summed up in perfect vacuity by the “let people enjoy things,” meme.

But I am, in fact enjoying myself, get your hands off my mouth you irritating twit.

This is an infantilization of an audience. The fan has invested so much of their identity in being a fan of this franchise or that, of being a trekker or of being a Marvel fan, of loving Barbie or loving Batman, that any criticism of the art for its technical execution, its message, its deployment of novelty or of repetition becomes a violence committed against the fan.

Recently, I made the mistake of discussing my opinion of WandaVision on social media, and I said that I thought it was, and this is a complete quote that would not be transformed by context, “Not… good.” Two words, one ellipses. Not… good. A fan replied, “I feel like you kicked me.” Like I had kicked them. My statement, that I denied the quality of this work of art in which they had invested their identity, was seen as being indistinguishable from an assault upon them. Confronted with an artwork consisting of empty boxes, this fan put their heart inside. When I opened up the box and declared it empty, it was as if I had nullified their heart. But fannishness is the worst form of art appreciation. It is nothing but a surrender to the art. It denies that the audience has anything to say about the art, that the audience has any role beyond a mouth chewing.

Fannishness is full of pointless activity – the curation of wikis, the argumentation over “fan theories” and “head canons,” the hunt for easter eggs – but for all this wasted effort in sorting the franchise into digestible bites, easier to chew, there isn’t really anything for a fan to do. To become an artist, to take the work and to make something of it, involves a tearing down of the art to the ground. The once-fan-become-artist unmakes the old art to create the new. This is an escape from fandom; the fanfiction artist has set themselves apart from fandom through the act of responding to the art. Likewise a critic cannot be a fan. Criticism is an act of cutting. We slice apart the art, open up its hidden layers, expose its secret parts to sunlight. A critic must keenly look for the hidden box, rip off the lid and announce its contents to the world. Marketers who want to hide the interiority of the art because they know it to be lacking are enemies of critics in the same way copyright lawyers are enemies of artists.

And so we come to the point where a fan can be identified as what they truly are: an unpaid brand manager. Of course we’ve seen from fandoms what toxicity this ambassadorship can engender.

The best movie I saw in theatres in 2020, and the best superheroic movie released within any franchise since Black Panther in 2018, the only comic book movie worth the effort of watching since the release of Black Panther, was Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This movie took the only redeemable kernel of value from the otherwise putrid Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie’s excellent performance, which managed to shine through even the monstrous editing of this film – and crafted from it a brash and explosive movie which shamelessly obliterated the authoritarian apparatus of the superheroic genre in a riot of glitter and cocaine.

So, of course, the brand ambassadors of the “Snyderverse” have taken to voluntarily sticking advertisements for their preferred version of the DC brand on the front of dvd boxes for this far-better film. This is just marketing. Unpaid marketing, marketing as competent as the art-restoration skills of Cecilia Giménez’s but with infinitely less charm. And likewise, those discussions that demand we refuse to become either artists or critics, that demand we express nothing but enthusiasm for the next bite of our pablum, are nothing but marketing.

Furthermore, this fannish preoccupation with avoidance of spoilers is a particularly cheap marketing ploy that factionalizes social groups to those who are in the know and those who must get caught up lest they be left out. Let’s be blunt. People who oppose the disclosure of spoilers make their demands in the name of respect but spoiler aversion isn’t about respect for friends. If my friend was about to dig into a steaming plate of offal because some slick liar persuaded them it was steak, I would be a good friend to say, “don’t eat that, it’ll make you sick.” Refusing to discuss art like a critic or like an artist, demanding all public discussion of art permit only enthusiasm is not respect for your friends. In fact, it is deeply disrespectful to your artist friends who would burn down the old work to create the new, or to the critic who enjoy laying the secrets of the artwork visible. Policing spoilers is fundamentally disrespectful to everybody but the brand ambassador. It is respect of the franchise alone.

And this means it is just a roundabout way to lick a particularly polished boot. An empty one at that. There is one final definition of “spoil” I think we could address. One spoils a child by giving in to their childish impulses, by allowing them to dictate what should be done even when their guardians know better. A spoiled child demands that their parents do and say the things they like or they will throw a tantrum. Fandom is an infantilization of the audience. Perhaps we should stop spoiling their detrimental impulses and start talking about art without averting our eyes.

Revisiting the ownership of fanfiction: Adam Ellis and Keratin

We had an interesting case example about the boundaries of fanfiction today when the popular online cartoonist, Adam Ellis, claimed the short film Keratin plagiarized his own work. I think this is a fascinating example of the way in which the delineation of ownership sets the boundaries of fanfiction, because on one hand, it’s trivially evident that Keratin is a fan work.

James Andrew MacKenzie Wilson does not appear to have any prior film credits to his name, while the other person credited with the Keratin short (Andrew Butler) has only a few prior credits. This short, which has been working the festival circuit, seemed like an opportunity for two early-career directors to demonstrate what they can do with a camera and with actors.

But of course they didn’t pay for their storyboard. Instead they chose a comic they were clearly fond of and used it as their storyboard. As I talked about previously, fanfiction is the act of creating art in dialog with and derivative art for which the artist cannot claim ownership. What problematizes this here is that the artists behind the film did, in fact, claim ownership of Keratin though not of the Ellis storyboard that obviously informed it.

Now I’m seeing a lot of the same people who were rushing to the defense of fanfiction during the recent discourse on the topic, expressing outrage at the uncredited use of Ellis’ art as a storyboard. And I get it, because these two men are building prestige, and possibly making money, off the back of Ellis’ creative labour. Their work is clearly derivative.

However derivation is a natural component of the artistic process. We might as well complain that Goya’s work was derivative of Reubens.

Derivation and transformation bringing about that which would not be but for the art

In both Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his son and that of Reubens, the monstrous father looms above his child-prey in the panel. Both are cloaked in darkness, the ground beneath their feet indistinct, the sky a void. Saturn, in both instances, show a loathsome muscular physicality, but in both cases his genitals are concealed, abstracting Saturn from the generative aspect of the father. He is the father as unmaker, as the terrible presence that overcomes the child and leaves him naked and consumed.

Our only principal difference is a change in the treatment of the son. For Reubens, the son is a subject, his abjection and terror are a shocking central motif of the frame. For Goya the son is an object, reduced to just so much meat to be consumed.

In many art history classes, Goya’s painting is a central piece of study. Our study of Reubens is more likely to focus on his depiction of the female form. Goya is the master of the image of the devouring father in his darkness. Reubens the master of the fecund and generative. This could be seen as appropriate considering the way Goya consumes Reubens’ motifs in the creation of his monstrous masterpiece.

And through this process of derivation, through this act of grazing upon the intellectual commons sowed by Reubens, Goya created a truly great work of art. And at this point I’ll pause to describe my criterion for calling Goya’s work great; it certainly doesn’t lie in the technical excellence of the work. In every technical manner, Reubens is the superior painter, the greater craftsman.

But Goya’s work, the manic wildness in the eyes of Saturn, the way that his divine child has been reduced to a cadaver, an object devoid of hands or of a head, of any of the markers of subjectivity we expect, creates, in the depiction of Saturn, that which would not be but for the art. How could we come to understand Saturn in the way we do through Goya’s art if we did not see Goya’s painting?

So we can do away with the idea that a work of art being derivative invalidates it as a work of art. But there is a question of boundaries here beyond the question of ownership. And that is this: is a storyboard part of a film or is a film a work of art derived from a storyboard, a distinct artistic moment?

I found a page recently that contains several samples of storyboards from famous films. I want to look at one specific example from it here for a moment.

Even in this very limited set, we can see both how the storyboard realized the vision of the film but also how it differed from it. The title of the film in the opening crawl was changed, the text became flat against a star field rather than the three-dimensional objects of the first panel. The design of C3P0 changed, became more mechanical and obviously artificial between storyboard and film. It’s evident that the storyboard is art. And it is evident that the storyboard informs the art of the film; but is the storyboard a being-in-itself or is it simply one of the faces Star Wars presents us? If it is, in fact, a part of Star Wars and not an independent artwork, how do we address the changes that occur in the process of derivation?

But of course, it was never entirely about the independence of the art so much as it was about the ownership of the art. So by the same token, who has the moral right to Star Wars: George Lucas or Joe Johnson and Alex Tavoularis, who drew the storyboards?

And furthermore, does the fact that the storyboards to Star Wars are sold by a book, an object separate from the movie, have any impact on the extent to which the storyboard is a being-in-itself rather than a being-for-another? Should we consider then the author of the storyboard to be Lucasfilm LTD? Is the company then an independent being? And if so did it die when it was consumed by Disney? How, aside from the artificiality of ownership contract can we assign the right to claim Star Wars as a work-that-is-theirs to Disney and not to Tavoluaris?

Who owns an original? Who owns a derivative? Where do those boundaries lie? I don’t suspect that any of these questions will be answered today. I am frustrated that ownership must so often intrude upon art. It’s trivially obvious that derivation and transformation play a role in the creation of art: derivation as transformation is one of the principal tools of artistic endeavor, and as I discussed in a previous essay, transformation is first a process of unmaking. If the original object of artistic inspiration is unmade in the process of transformation, any derivation is to be considered a new thing: the phoenix arising from the ashes of the death of the original work. But capital doesn’t recognize these patterns of creation and destruction. Instead it recognizes only the contract and the right to own. Capital wants to hold everything in stasis.

Ultimately this is a dispute over three questions in the realm of the world we live in, the world of capital’s boundaries. The first is legal. Is Keratin sufficiently transformative to survive litigation through the mechanism of fair use? I am not a lawyer and must carefully state that this is not legal advice, but my instinct is that, yes, it is transformative. It is a work in an entirely different medium. The distance between the comic and the film is far vaster than that between Reubens and Goya.

The second question: does Ellis have a moral right to the work? This one I am uncertain of for the same reason I question who holds the moral right to Star Wars.

The third question: should Ellis be paid? This is, of course, distinct from the legal question of must Ellis be paid. And this is one where a fair moral argument could be held in either direction. However a word of caution I’d advise commentariat on here: please consider the extent to which this situation differs from Twilight and Thirty Shades of Grey. In each case, one artist took the work of another and unmade it in a transformative act into the ground for new art. In each case, the derivation is clear. If not for Stephanie Meyer, there would be no E.L. James.

If you feel E.L. James had no ethical requirement to pay Stephanie Meyers for her transformative-derivative work, you should probably err likewise here, notwithstanding Ellis’ popularity. And meanwhile, perhaps we should reserve or outrage for an economic system that pits artists against themselves and their own artistic impulses in the name of carefully delineated boundaries of ownership.

Wingspan and Post-Capitalist Forms of Competition

This might seem something of a pivot considering my blog generally covers books and television far more than other forms of art. But I want to be straightforward in situating board games as an artform. From a perspective of pure design, few board games released in recent years have had Wingspan’s visual panache.

The layout of a Wingspan game is one of moving pieces. Each player has a board upon which their game progresses. There is a common supply of markers used to indicate available food and eggs. There is a scorecard for round-objectives and a caddy which holds both face-up bird cards and and the decks of face-down cards that players can draw from as required. There is also a dice tower; and here is one of the places we have to stop to admire the commitment of the game to its visual motif.

The Wingspan Dice Tower

We should first note that the tower serves very little mechanical significance within a game of Wingspan. You could just as easily roll the food dice and leave the unclaimed dice in any easily accessible bit of table. This dice tower is an object of beauty. It’s shaped like a birdhouse, and creates this immersive three-dimensionality to the play area that is lacking in many games of its ilk.

The narrative of wingspan is that each player is creating a wildlife refuge for birds. This refuge is divided into three zones which are carefully colour coded: green forests, yellow grasslands and blue wetlands. Each one of these zones can hold a maximum of five species of bird. While some birds have capabilities that allow them to move between habitats, once a bird has been played it cannot be removed from the board. There are two types of card a player can hold: a bonus objective card which influences a player’s overall playstyle, and bird cards which represent the main scoring mechanic of play and the core gameplay loop. Each bird card is designed to replicate the look and feel of a page of a birdwatcher’s pocket guide. The cardstock presents a gloss white background with a hand-drawn colour image of a bird, generally viewed from profile, in the middle. The margins of the card provide a variety of information about the bird including its common name, taxonomic description, the habitats it can be played into and the food tokens that must be exchanged to play it, the point-value of the card when it is scored at the end of play, the type of nest it builds, the number of eggs it can hold, in a nest, the wingspan of the bird, the mechanics of how the presence of this bird in a habitat affects gameplay going forward, and a one-sentence note of trivia regarding the species. The cards are a master-work in efficient design. Almost every piece of information on the card might have an impact upon scoring and gameplay.

End-of-round objectives frequently require players to count number of eggs laid in specific nest types, or number of birds in specific habitats. There are sixteen potential end-of-round objectives out of which any game will use four, randomly selected. Each objective is on a tile which contains two objectives, one on each side, which means there is something in the realm of 80,640 – 2(8!) – possible configurations of end-of-round objective tiles, from which four will be selected each game. Furthermore bonus cards may require players to deliberately play cards with low point values, cards that contain references to colours or geographical features in their common names, cards that require specific feed types or that must be played in specific habitats.

The final piece that needs consideration is a set of eight colour-coded cubes which players use to indicate the actions they take upon their board. These cubes also indicate a player’s relative success in each end-of-round goal. This, of course, means that in each of the four rounds of play, each player will have successively one fewer action they may take on their board: Eight in round one. Then seven. Then six. Then, finally, five.

A commonly-played Wingspan card

There are four actions a player may take with each of these tokens. They may play a bird card into a habitat. They may select dice from the bird feeder. They may lay eggs into the nests of played birds or they may draw additional bird cards. Aside from playing bird cards, which only gets progressively more expensive, each action is associated with a habitat. Woodlands produce food, grasslands produce eggs, wetlands allow you to draw cards. As you fill the spaces in a habitat with more species, these actions become progressively more efficient, allowing a player to draw more dice from the feeder, to lay more eggs, to draw more cards. And of course, many of the cards played into a habitat also have effects that are activated by a player when they take an action in the habitat of the bird. These actions are also heavily impacted by order-of-play as a player always activates the most recently played bird first, and then works backward to the oldest bird in a habitat when activating card-based effects.

This situates Wingspan in the genre of board games called, “engine building games.”

A brief aside to define ludonarrative

Having now described the basic gameplay mechanics of Wingspan, the next question would likely be, “so what?” Why does it matter that you lose actions each round, or that an action becomes more efficient as you place more bird cards into a habitat row? What does any of that mean?

And this is where it’s necessary to introduce an important concept in the design and critique of game systems: ludonarrative. To start with coming to a proper understanding of this idea, and of how ludonarrative differs from narrative, we can first turn to Marshall McLuhan. If you are a Canadian of a certain age your first encounter with him may have been a heritage minute.

The Medium is the Message

For a version that isn’t a very silly 30-second drama you could also look into his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, from whence the phrase that “the medium is the message” derives.

A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time. For individualist Western man, much of his "adjustment" to society has the character of a personal surrender to the collective demands. Our games help both to teach us this kind of adjustment and also to provide a release from it. The uncertainty of the outcomes of our contests makes a rational excuse for the mechanical rigor of the rules and procedures of the game. 

McLuhan saw games as an intrinsically communicative and parodic medium. People deliberately put themselves into a contrived social situation, one bounded by strict but arbitrary rules, in a kind of mimetic replication of life. But games, being bounded by their agreed rules, limit the ways a person can think about playing the game.

Poker is a game that has often been cited as the expression of all the complex attitudes and unspoken values of a competitive society. It calls for shrewdness, aggression, trickery, and unflattering appraisals of character.

So in this appraisal, we can see how a game not only creates an artificial social simulation but how its rules shape that situation. McLuhan sees Baseball as being a game of, “static positions,” and, “specialist professions,” while he sees American football as a game that supports fluid, generalist roles. He sees poker as a game that requires a person to make, “unflattering appraisals of character,” as a game that induces one to be shrewd and aggressive.

While McLuhan’s digressions into aesthetics in this book verge on what we would consider some sort of pure and unadulterated cringe there is still great value in his sense of games as establishing communication through their structure. “The form of any game is of first importance,” he says, and there is where ludonarrative lies.

A ludonarrative is the message communicated by the board and the rules of a game. It is the story that arises directly out of the game-like structure of a game. Ludonarrative is always in communication with the more conventional narrative of the game. The way we are expected to play a game is going to inform the frame within which we consider the ideas of the game’s narrative.

So what is the narrative of wingspan again?

Well, we’re building a bird sanctuary.

Engine building games and the value of more

Engine building games are usually built around the idea of profit. You get more actions as the game progresses. In Terraforming Mars, your currency (M€) production will grow over the game. As this currency is the principal limit for how many actions you can take in a round, this leads to a gameplay that grows in complexity and duration to the precise amount that your profit grows. After all, M€ is an explicit reference to income. A player in Terraforming Mars holds cards in hand which are project plans and which they pay a nominal quantity of currency to purchase; these then are like patents which the player may then expend more money to execute. These cards provide the player with sources of profit that create a positive feedback loop wherein making money gives you more money to spend executing projects to give yourself the ability to make more money.

In Orléans the narrative explicitly situates a player as a merchant. While they may fund the building of forts or the work of farmers, the principal objective of the game is to obtain goods for trade and markets in which to trade these goods. As players build up their supply chains, introducing automation, hiring guards, and sponsoring technological innovation they may call upon more employees to assist them in the execution of actions each turn. The ludonarrative treats the player as a human resources manager carefully arranging the task-assignments of various work specialists such that you can make more money.

Scythe has a more complicated relationship with production and profit but only slightly. Scythe concedes that state power can appropriate the productive capacity of other agents by positioning most of its currencies on the board. And it also imposes a minor penalty on production when a player has reached certain critical milestones in their ability to produce. But even so, this sense of increasingly being able to do more as the game progresses is built in. Deploying mechs improves your mobility immensely, allowing a player a far greater ability to navigate the board and secure strategic resources. Deploying workers allows a player to produce more and build industrial improvements and monuments that increase what they gain each turn.

While there is an element of cost-benefit analysis in Terraforming Mars and in Scythe, this is entirely absent from Orléans whose ludonarrative is entirely about the maximization of profit. And in all three of these popular engine building games, the assumption of game structure is that as the game progresses the player will have to do more.

In contrast Wingspan asks its players to successively do more with less. Each round of play in wingspan, a player has fewer actions in which to accomplish a broad variety of objectives. Depending on random factors a player will have somewhere between one and three bonus objective cards to fulfill. They will also have a round objective. They will need to consider the value of the birds they are introducing to their habitats and they will need to consider the interactions between these birds and none of these factors suggests an accumulation of profit. Wingspan is a game about expenditure.

You spend limited actions to activate the cards in a habitat, and to make use of the habitat. You spend cards from hand to gain food with which to play other cards in hand. You spend food to induce your birds to lay eggs, you spend eggs to diversify your ecosystem by drawing new bird cards and generating the potential to play cards. You are operating within a field of sharply defined limits and there are no external reinforcements coming. You don’t have an income phase like in Terraforming Mars or a harvest phase like in Agricola. You have objectives, some shared and some secret, and you have an ever-shrinking pool of resources with which to achieve those objectives. You may improve the efficiency with which you attempt to achieve those objectives but only at a cost. Playing a bird card takes an action in which you cannot activate any other cards. And each action taken in a turn represents not only a gain but also an expenditure. Everything on your board in Wingspan has end-game value. You are building a diverse ecosystem and a diverse ecosystem includes up to 15 species of bird, the fish, insects, rodents, fruit, grain and other birds that those species eat, the eggs they lay, the extent to which all these different creatures correspond to the objectives you’ve agreed to, when considering success in Wingspan you have to consider the balance of all things.

TFW your opponent plays Ecoline and you know you’re going to lose the game.

And to succeed at one thing requires, to a certain extent, sacrificing another, engaging in an act of expenditure. This is even the case at the start of play. Each player is dealt a hand of five bird cards and five food, one of each of the types available in play. This represents a set of ten play markers. A player must reduce that to five play markers by discarding some combination of bird cards and food tokens. Every player starts play on equal footing; asymmetries in starting play emerge out of an act of expenditure for which there is no synchronous gain. This presents another contrast to the arch-capitalist Terraforming Mars, where each player will have a pre-set advantage that will include the starting resources and income a player has available.

In terraforming Mars, success is measured very clearly in building a profit-generating engine. Wingspan is also centered around the building of an engine, but you know you will be entering into a position of loss with each successive turn. Instead the engine in Wingspan is about optimizing system efficiency such to counter the reduced resources available to you. This may seem like a very small tweak on the engine building model but it creates a very different economy of play and this changed economy is far less capitalist than what we see from most other engine building games.

Competition is not intrinsically capitalist

The ideology of liberal capitalism situates capitalism as a totalizing thing. Capitalism is seen as the ultimate expression of certain traits, such as competition, the generation of surplus, the development of innovation, and freedom. For somebody enmeshed within a capitalist view it’s very easy to imagine reality as a slider. On one side is capitalism and on the other is not-capitalism. Not-capitalism is always weakly defined, which is what creates idiocy like the horseshoe theory. The capitalist ideologue has positioned the political other in relation to capitalism. Anything that is against those traits that capitalism claims is the same thing by being against those traits. And anything that is explicitly against capitalism must also be against those traits, because to the capitalist ideologue, competition, surplus, innovation and freedom are capitalism.

It’s no wonder that the capitalist ideologue looks at communism and says, “they must be against freedom,” because communism is against capitalism, and capitalism is the same thing as freedom in their mind. And it’s no wonder that they, against any practical or logical reason believe nazism to be the same as socialism because nazis are against freedom, against innovation. As freedom and innovation are seen as synonyms for capitalism, nazi traditionalism and authoritarianism must be fundamentally the same as communist collectivism. The idea that there might be more than just a slider is questionable, though some capitalists might at least concede a second, less important, axis between freedom and authority. Capitalism is, of course, situated upon the freedom end of this axis; just also to the right.

There are other problems that arise from this in the creation of secondary false dichotomies, and one of these is what interests me the most about Wingspan. A capitalist mindset plots a right-left dichotomy between cooperation and competition. According to capitalist ideologues, the more cooperative an action is, the less competitive it becomes. This is because capitalism sees competition as being an act of taking all the surplus.

And yet, here we have Wingspan, a game in which there is no surplus to take, a game in which people start symmetrically and in which people lose resources at a symmetrical rate, where each player will have, in any given game, some ten to twelve contradictory objectives they must try to prioritize and spend their equally limited resources on. Success in the ludic level of the game involves a clever weighing of a sort of multi-column arithmetic in order to most efficiently achieve those goals it is possible to excel at without falling too far behind on goals that are off-meta. Success in the narrative level of the game involves producing a diverse and complicated ecosystem within your three zones of habitability. You succeed by building the most delicately complicated bird sanctuary possible.

What possible profit could this bring?

And yet there is competition.

We can imagine our players, each a manager of a bird sanctuary, as people who care deeply about birds. We want everyone to succeed at creating a bird sanctuary. This isn’t the cut-throat mercantile politics of Orléans or the techno-corporate future of delineated ownership that is Terraforming Mars. There is no central board for players to oppositionally position themselves on. There is just all these little sanctuaries full of their vast panoply of beautiful birds. The mindset that Wingspan produces is one in which the success of another player is to be encouraged. A low-scoring game involves no defense. A win with a low score reflects a mutual failure. The thing to do is to win with the highest score. And this will involve not just the creation of a functioning and diverse habitat (though this will be needed) but one with a distinctly personal flare, as defined by your bonus card(s). Perhaps your sanctuary is composed only of birds with wingspans less than 30 centimeters; or particularly colourful birds, or gives priority to birds who only eat fish. And in balancing these terribly specific objectives against the general objective of creating a diverse board game we see what success looks like in Wingspan.

Success lies in building a bird sanctuary that both functions and that reflects something special, something that could not have been if you weren’t the one who did it. There’s no sense of profit in Wingspan. Eventually you will run out of resources with which to build a sanctuary. There’s a limit to how complex an ecosystem can become. There’s a limit to how many eggs you can persuade a pelican to lay. Limits, in fact, abound. Wingspan is ultimately a game of what you cannot do, of being funneled into actions because you cannot accomplish what you desire without establishing a conducive precondition.

You compete not to end up with more of a pool of resources. You compete to do the best job. In other engine building games, it’s common to use an action to block another player. You might, in Terraforming Mars, draft a card you know fits your opponent’s meta, or place a tile on a hex that impedes the direction another player wants to grow. You might set a nuclear bomb off next to their best city, degrading its value as a result.

In Wingspan the only opportunity to attack other players that can occur is to take a face-up bird card before another player can. But most card-actions occur on multiple cards, and you aren’t necessarily going to be hurting the other player much at all by taking that card, and your actions are scarce. You had best hope you have a use for the card you took. In contrast, there are many ways to help another player with your action. Many birds have actions that don’t activate when you play into a habitat but rather when an opponent does. Other cards might give the same food resource to all players, or will allow all players to lay eggs. These cards represent a risk, but the risk isn’t one of “can I harm my enemy,” so much as it is, “will this help me more than it helps my rivals?”

Wingspan puts lie to the idea that competition and cooperation are antonyms, and it puts lie to the idea that competition is intrinsically capitalist. Instead it gives us an idea of a world in which people strive to create good works, and where competition and prestige arises not from monetizing that work but by doing the most you can with the least resources input. It presents an idea of competition where personal flare matters more than market effectiveness. It presents an idea of competition where cooperation is a part of the competitive act and where the measure of your success is improved when everyone plays their best game.

The text of Wingspan is about building a bird sanctuary. But its ludonarrative gives us a window into a world where we’ve broken the illusion of the capitalist monolith, it lets us see that we need not amputate parts of the human spirit like innovation or competition in order to do away with an economy that is destroying the world.

Wingspan, ultimately, presents us with a stark contrast to Terraforming Mars. The logic of capital tells us we must always expand outward, must build bigger, grander, more complex projects, ever profiting, ever doing more. Wingspan gives a different logic, a logic of limits, and working within them, a paradigm of competition as expression of personality, a spice to make the cooperation sweeter.