Wednesday, 20 December 2017

ART IMITATING LIFE - Star Wars Battlefront II and Zombie Formalism

In a recent video by the Game Theorists on YouTube, MatPat proposed that the future of video games will be similar in trajectory to that of Fine Art. Postmodern video games like Goat Simulator and Soda Drinker Pro will make way for the post-postmodern (or the metamodern, or post-millenialism), games that ditch the ironic for the authentic and genuine. Maybe we can see this starting already in games like Breath of the Wild and The Last of Us, games that are unafraid to engage its audience in an emotional and difficult world with its own grey areas (Zelda and the Champions failed to save Hyrule, and Joel saves a teenage girl over humanity).

While this theory will no doubt turn out to be true, the current gaming world is a little distracted by a certain Star Wars Battlefront II. If you're not aware, the game has come under fire from fans and critics for its controversial loot box system. Essentially, the game provides you with an opportunity to short cut the grinding in the game to buy, with real world money, random loot crates, which may or may not provide you with an advantage in the game play. In a game that relies heavily on online player-vs-player battles, better gear or weapons would provide you with a significant chance of winning each round, but only if you can afford the microtransactions.

The main contention was in the idea that EA, the developers behind the game, were selling you half a product for full price and then making you buy the rest in bits. Add to that that this game is rated PEGI 16, you are kind of allowing gambling mechanics in a game for minors. Disney, who own Star Wars, were freaked out by this, and EA pulled the microtransactions on the day before release, and governments in Belgium, Hawaii and Singapore are investigating the game, with Chris Lee of the Hawaii House of Representatives calling the game "an online casino designed to trap little kids". All this controversy led Star Wars Battlefront II to undersell and for EA to loose $3 billion off its stock value (8.5% of its share price).

What this episode displays is that gamers are becoming aware of the certain nefarious tactics used in the gaming industry to drive up profit. While microtransactions are not a new thing, their growing prevalence is allowing once satisfying and story based games to become shallow and repetitive. Players are being encouraged to get their enjoyment from "rewards" like new costumes and weapons, instead of emotional investment and mental challenges, and the games value then becomes based more on how much money you plough into it, rather then how cathartic it is to play.

Six different artists, all listed here

Meanwhile, in the art world, the market is still bouncing along in its own little world. Last month, a relatively new discovery in da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" sold of an eye watering $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold, and a tidy profit on the $10,000 dollars it sold for in 2005. And lets not forget 10 years ago when Damien Hirst sold his infamous diamond skull, "For the Love of God", for a reported £50 million, the highest price for a living artist, to a consortium of buyers which included himself. Then there's the process of "flipping", where you buy up a younger artists work for cheap and then sell it shortly afterwards for huge profits.

Zombie Formalism, or Zombie Abstraction, is a term coined by Walter Robinson for Artspace magazine in 2014 describing the then recent trend for buyers flipping the works of young artists. These artists, like Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith, create work reminiscent of a variety of different styles, and what Robinson describes as a "a simulacrum of originality" that "function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design." Zombie Formalism derided negative attention as soon as it rose to prominence, with New York magazine's senior art critic Jerry Saltz describing the works as "ersatz art... It’s frictionless, made for trade. Art as bitcoin."

The main contention of Zombie Formalism is in the flipping. The fact that these works of art, created mostly with the good intentions of the artist, where brought purely to be sold on. A work brought for $10,000 would sell a few months later for hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, months after that, works that were meant to sell well sold for very little or not at all, resulting the the auction system going into a bit of panic. The collectors gambled on cheap art selling for big profits and the gamble failed.

So what has this to do with Star Wars Battlefront II? Money, of course. The art market relies on their own tastes becoming popular within the art market itself, and therefore driving up profits. If they're lucky, these works retain their value, are sold to museums, and are then written into the history books. EA, who as of May this year was worth $27.4 billion, still insists that they are selling games too cheap, with Wall Street firm KeyBanc Capital Markets saying that "Quantitative analysis shows that video game publishers are actually charging gamers at a relatively inexpensive rate, and should probably raise prices." While EA's games are hugely popular, their vapid output runs the risk of alienating the very people they're trying to market to, and microtransactions have the potential to turn video games into "ersatz" games, robbing the medium of its very essence.

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, “The Entrepreneur” (1987) - hung at Mar-A-Lago

I'll leave with a quote from Walter Robinson from the previously mentioned article:

"The ferocious currents of the art market have always been visible enough in the auction rooms. But it’s silly to be upset with the fish that swim there—that’s like getting mad at people who win the lottery, or Donald Trump. It’s just not very bohemian to care about that kind of stuff."

In a truly post-postmodernist move, maybe its about time we truly started caring about this kind of stuff.


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