Will Wright’s Stupid Fun Club

picture-1 Will Wright is one of the smartest people in the gaming business, and he'd probably be well up there in just about any business. He's the guy that invented SimCity, The Sims, and most recently, Spore. His games are never conventional. It always seemed as though he was pushing the idea of what a game could be far beyond anyone else. Though now that I'm thinking about it, he never really built games, he built simulations. Anyways, he's left EA to head up the Stupid Fun Club. Wikipedia failed me when looking this thing up, but I did find a 2002 Newsweek article quoted on MTV Multiplayer that described it like this:

The two-year-old stupid Fun Club is organized around the interest in robots, shared by Thorpe and filmmaker Mike Winter, Wright’s partners in the club. Their first TV pilot, called “M.Y. Robot,” features six-inch-high puppets, a roaming robot and a 16th-century Japanese village that has been altered by alien technology. In postproduction, anime-style graphics were overlaid onto the footage to communicate with viewers in a secret script. Wright explains that he was appropriating Japanese visual styles in the same way the Japanese shows reinterpret American cultural mores. “As far as we know, nobody has done this,” he says.

And according to the EA press release:

“The entertainment industry is moving rapidly into an era of revolutionary change … Stupid Fun Club will explore new possibilities that are emerging from this sublime chaos and create new forms of entertainment on a variety of platforms. In my twelve years at EA, I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside some of the brightest and most talented game developers in the industry and I look forward to working with them again in the near future.”

All of which sounds incredibly awesome and weird. And awesomely weird.  I think the coolest thing about it though is a implied media neutrality to what they are doing. He could make another game if he wants, as EA owns half of the SFC and it seems gets the option on any games made there, but it leaves the door open to infinite experimentation and the option to pursue any and all ideas that come out of that. That, my friends, is the future of the entertainment industry. Unbundle from media channels. Assemble a bunch of idea people together, regardless of their craft and create using whatever medium makes the most sense…be that video games or television shows or (hopefully) robots. Ideas come from people, not specialties. All of which makes me wonder if advertising could be better off using a model like this. What if instead of having a bunch of siloed departments of specialists, we had idea people and production people? Let's get rid of planning departments and creative departments and account management … those are all departments based on skills rather than ideas. They are also based on the flawed thinking that creativity is a process. Ideas aren't bound to any sort of 10-step process or the ability to use photoshop or run a focus group. That way of thinking is antique. And each and every one of us knows it. Yet we all allow it to persist. Seems a little insane to me.

Digital Curmudgeon

A few months ago, after taking a bike ride across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, we came across this guy:
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He stacks rocks. And it’s amazing. I don’t know how difficult it actually is … maybe it’s just a matter of being bored enough to try it. But it’s really interesting. And after watching Thru-You, and being temporarily amazed before moving onto something else, it made me start thinking about creativity and the Internet, or more specifically, what the digital world means to creativity.

I want to start off by saying that I’ve never really trusted electronic music. Maybe it’s because I’m a drummer, but I used to really dislike all of it until a band called Lake Trout opened my eyes to how good it can be. Now instead of hating all of it, I’m highly skeptical, just like I am with hip-hop. Reflecting on it, I think that I just require a lot more proof that a digital artist has something interesting to say than I do of a more traditional band. Where is the line is between artistic creation and the mastering of a technology?

While at SXSW a few weeks ago, we met up with an art director from a prominent San Fran agency who had been to some kind of demonstration of upcoming Photoshop features which we joked about being the end of art direction as a career. “I’m going to be like an IT person now, when the Photoshop acts up, that’s when they’ll call an art director, to fix it.”  Just get someone computer savvy on the payroll, and have the computer make the ads look good. Maybe it’s the new data entry?

It makes me wonder if creativity has become a commodity because of technology. Is it disposable? Can there ever be another Beatles, or Rembrandt, or Hemingway? Andy Warhol remarked that in the future, everyone would get 15 minutes of fame. But what if we’re moving to a future where no one gets fame because there is so much creativity out there that none of it gets noticed?

Creative things are no longer things to be cherished or admired, they are now something that anyone can do cheaply and simply. I worry sometimes that creativity as a job is being killed in the same way that robot arms threaten assembly line jobs. Are we making creativity so easy to do that we’re all doomed to a future where having creative skills isn’t worth a paycheck?

Maybe not. Thinking back to my last post, I think that the value of created things is not in perfection, but in their humanity, which at this point is near impossible to create digitally without enough knowledge and ability to inject your own sense of craft into it. The athleticism inherent in creation, which for some reason is usually missing in our digital pursuits, or if it’s there, we tend to iron the humanity right out of it in order to make it perfect.

Three examples:

  1. Part of the difficulty I had while moving the blog to WordPress was that the themes available were all so perfect and shiny. Finding a theme with any sort if character was hard to do. Even the themes tagged as “grunge” were still kind of perfectly imperfect, like what a mom’s scrapbook page about her teenager’s band would look like.  After sorting through so many themes that were cutesy and rounded and did unnecessary things, I finally had to pick a theme that was almost interesting, and then go into the code and ugly it up a bit.  While Web 2.0 does make it easier for people to make things on the Web, it does so by providing the user with perfected bits and atoms to assemble and write on. In that sense, while things can be customized, you lose a bit of the individual human touch that comes from building things on your own.
  2. Whenever I’m flipping through an old photo album or just a shoebox full of old pictures, it’s always the unplanned shots that are the best.  But for some reason, people always end up framing and displaying the perfectly posed picture.  Everyone is smiling, looking at the camera, no one is blinking, and hopefully none of the kids are holding themselves where the bathing suite goes because they have to pee (see my wedding photos for examples of this).  It seems as though digital photography should enable more of these candid shots because of the increased number of pictures we can take without changing film, and it does, but the problem is that they are much easier to delete than film-based prints are to throw away.  There’s something about throwing away a physical print that seems more wasteful, while it is so easy to delete a picture that didn’t turn out perfectly that might actually turn out to be a favorite in a couple years.
  3. There is a line from an old Ani Difranco song that I heard a million years ago and haven’t been able to find since (no matter how much I refer to it when writing this blog), that says something to the effect of “making a record used to be about recording the event of musicians making music together.” The imperfections were a part of the charm.  They showed craft, personality, and often times would inspire the evolution of an idea or of a completely new genre of music itself.  It’s what I’ve been thinking of lately as the athleticism inherent in playing music.  Digital recording seems to have all but eliminated any nuance of style or character.  As a drummer, there’s something about the chaos and nuance that can be created by striking a surface differently, or by the clashing sounds of many cymbals and drums ringing at the same time produce.  Unfortunately, it seems that more and more of the recording that I’m doing is using electronic drums that produce a midi note rather than live recordings.  This midi note can then be changed however is thought to be necessary.  You can take a drum beat that someone plays, and have the program make it perfect, taking away any sense of style and feel that makes it uniquely that drummer.  It also completely eliminates the “noisiness” that is a sizable part of playing the drums.  Everything is so precise that it loses a bit of the base level, cave-man excitement of percussion. The same can be done with melodic instruments,  and for a few hundred bucks you can buy a software program that will allow you to correct your very own vocals so that they are exactly on pitch. We can now completely scrub away any imperfections that reek of human involvement when creating music.

This post has turned into a doozy of a long, rambling thing, so I suppose I'd be better wrap up and try to make some sort of point. I think it's this: Part of the value that comes from creating something is that our humanity and imperfections make it truly one of a kind. Sometimes it seems to me that the digitalization of things is commoditizing creation by making it so accessible, perfect, and disposable that what we're making is becoming less and less valuable. And maybe the ease with which we can now create by building and combining and making things is going to give way to a creativity thats more about deconstruction than it is about creating.