David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy is not exactly a feel-good read for a bookkeeper. For me, as a money minder who has found learning to code her way out of data management problems to be an unanticipated creative outlet in her work, this hits close to home: “In the few areas in which free, imaginative creativity actually is fostered, … it is ultimately marshaled in order to create even more, and even more effective, platforms for the filling out of forms.” Ouch.
Worse still for one who enjoys fantasy worlds and role-playing games is Graeber’s observation that, while those may feel may feel imaginative and subversive, with their elves and dwarves and orcs, if they follow the path laid down by Dungeons & Dragons of quantifying character attributes, they “ultimately reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality.” Sigh.
Fortnite Battle Royale, a free-to-play teaser game for the RPG Fortnite by Epic, aims to mash up a lot more than just balrogs and bureaucracy.
It’s a last-player-standing shoot-’em-up set in a cartoonish world, whose replay value lies in the randomness of the 99 other players you battle it out with in real time, a map that the developers regularly expand, seasonally themed content, and items like jet packs and drivable shopping carts.
Those are the freebies. Then there are the in-app purchases: virtual outfits, character models, weapon skins, gliders, emojis, and dance routines. There are no typos in that list; beyond the simple appeal of seeing your avatar do a victory strut, the game has dance floors where you can shake your money maker, and both the dances and the emojis fall into the category of “emotes.”
The result is “aesthetically ambiguous,” in the words of Waypoint‘s Yussef Cole, which would come as no surprise to Graeber, who identifies the “simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche” of the postmodern aesthetic with a regime of technological development that prioritizes innovations that make it easier “to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already exist … or … never [will].” Fortnite may have revolutionized video games, but it didn’t give us real jet packs or super-fast Wal-Mart carts.
It’s also no surprise that by letting your Fortnite avatar get down, you’re actually shaking Epic’s money maker. (TechCrunch reported that Epic’s 2018 profit was $3 billion, with the Battle Royale app leading the way as quite possibly the most popular video game in history.)
There is a parallel to the limited freedom and scope for creativity that Graeber finds in that other great vehicle for popular pastiche, superhero comics. Superheroes don’t create or act, they only react to the threats posed by the villains, who are the ones having all the fun. “Insofar as superheroes are allowed to be imaginative in any way, it could only be extended to the design of their clothes, their cars, maybe their homes, their various accessories.” Or, in the words of CNet’s Jason Parker, “Selling cosmetic items works.”
And a lot of Epic’s profit is legally and ethically, as well as aesthetically, dubious. The creators of battle royale pioneer PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds issued the first legal challenge to Fortnite’s questionably original pastiche, though they eventually dropped the suit. Epic settled with dancer Gabby J David, whose choreography the company turned into the Electro Shuffle emote without her consent or compensation.
Still pending are lawsuits by artists 2 Milly, BlocBoy JB, and Alfonso Ribeiro, each of whom choreographed a dance that became an (uncredited) Fortnite emote. It’s significant that all of the artists who are still seeking recognition and recompense from Epic are Black (and that David’s stolen choreography was inspired by the music of Black artists).
Yussef Cole writes, “seeing an interchangeable action Ken doll with cargo pants and grenade holsters slip into regional performances from Memphis, Atlanta, and New York, is an uncomfortable reminder of the exploitable nature of hip hop culture, of the easy way blackness can be taken, remixed and made profitable outside the black community.”
Cole goes on to quote bell hooks, “Constructing the black male body as a site of pleasure and power, rap and the dances associated with it suggest vibrancy, intensity, and an unsurpassed joy in living. It emerged in the streets—outside the confines of a domesticity shaped and informed by poverty, outside enclosed spaces where young male bodies had to be contained and controlled.” Like the “assembled young men” in BlocBoy JB’s Shoot video, “leaning on the trunks of cars, throwing dice, holding guns, laughing and dancing with abandon.”
Contrast this with Graeber’s take on the purposes served by the repetitive plots of superhero comics. “The core audience for superhero comics [is] mainly adolescent or preadolescent white boys. That is, individuals who are at a point in their lives where they are likely to be both maximally imaginative and at least a little bit rebellious; but who are also being groomed to eventually take on positions of authority and power in the world, to be fathers, sheriffs, small business owners, middle managers, engineers. And what do they learn from these endless repeated dramas? Well, first off, that imagination and rebellion lead to violence; second, that, like imagination and rebellion, violence is a lot of fun; third, that, ultimately, violence must be directed against any overflow of imagination and rebellion lest everything go askew. These things must be contained!”
In this context, it reads almost like an instruction manual for cultural appropriation: 1. Feel the attraction of the Other. 2. Feel the threat of the Other. 3. Return home with only those parts of the Other that you feel you can domesticate. 4. Repeat.
Young white men are groomed to run Graeber’s utopia of rules; Black youth are mined as a free source of the fun, anarchic, and ultimately rejected elements of the morality plays designed to socialize those future pillars of bureaucratic society.
Cole also points out that the inclusion of random acts of dance in a duel to the death like Fortnite is popular because it is fun. A battle royale may be the kind of unstructured play that Graeber identifies as a frightening, potentially destructive force, and it has a power that society usually seeks to temper with rules. In Fortnite, “the modes of interactivity largely center on violent and destructive behavior,” Cole writes, so “it’s refreshing to be able to bust a move once in a while. … It follows that in social games, a social activity like dancing should be able to find a place.”
He continues, “But the social nature and relationships of dance in America have always been fraught. There has always been a division between black performers and the fruit of their creativity. But there doesn’t need to be. I’d rather live in the utopia that Chance the Rapper proposes: “Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them.”
I volunteer to help with the accounting.
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