Comfort and Creativity

I love games. I’ve written and designed games for a living, for most of my adult career. I love interactive, dynamic narratives. I love emergent storytelling. I love creative narrative solutions to complex technological and scope constraints. So sometimes here, you’re going to catch me talking games. This is tangentially about games. But really, it’s about creativity and capitalism. 

During Microsoft’s E3 presentations, they announced a new game called The Last Night. I saw it, and really dug the art style.

I had no idea what the game was about, but it has a sort of Blade Runner type aesthetic. I was instantly curious: I’m a huge fan of cyberpunk fiction. William Gibson is one of my biggest influences. So I started looking into the game. 

It’s not for me. 

Apparently, the story is about a future where “feminism wins,” and this is a bad thing. That’s sad, but whatever. Not everything has to be for me, and it’s not like ignorant speculative fiction based on childish ideas of societal evolution are particularly uncommon. Regressive, misogynist ideas are sadly very common in the science fiction world, despite all logic and reason. 

But the developer’s made some comments that I just can’t reconcile. I’m going to focus on one today. 

This is from the Steam description. “Stabilised by universal income, people struggle to find their calling or identity, and define themselves by what they consume, rather than what they create.” 

Let that sink in for a second. 

This has two massive implications. First, that universal income would stop people from finding their calling and identity, and second that under universal income, people would be defined by consumption. 

Creativity and Money

Creative people starve. You’ve heard the term, right? “Starving artist?” Having a steady, universal income would be a massive blessing to creative people, and would indeed enable a creative renaissance. This isn’t a controversial statement. If you’ve taken any college-level history, anthropology, or sociology courses, you know that a society which provides for its people’s needs is a society which flourishes. Why? Because without that, you have to invest your time and energy meeting basic needs. With that, you can focus not on what you need, but what you want. 

I’m a professional artist. A creator. And for a vast majority of my time in professional creative pursuits, I’ve been forced to eschew creativity at every corner. I’ve been told that in a horror game, I had to add katanas despite their not being thematically sound for the type of horror I was telling. Why? The project director said he wanted the game to also appeal to fans of the film “Pulp Fiction.” Pulp Fiction isn’t a horror story, of course. And, in saying that, he was forcing derivative work out of me. When I pressed about it, he said that horror is too specific, and that we need to genericize the work in order to make it appeal to more people so it can make more money. 

This, basically, is the story of my career. Capitalism means the person who wins is always the person who appeals to the least common denominator
Take Hollywood as a prime example. Look at the top films of last year. Almost every single one is a derivative property, a remake, or an established work. New ideas are “risky,” and thus they’re relegated to the back burner, defunded, or otherwise kept down. There are rare exceptions, but those are always in spite of the trend. No new film property will compare to the box office performance of Transformers 8. 

Numerous times in my life, I’ve had ideas I thought were truly interesting and creative, and I’ve had to jot down notes and put them aside “for when I’ve got some free time.” Then, I take a contract working on someone else’s bland property, doing the same exact stories over and over because they pay

If I had a universal basic income, I wouldn’t have to take bland, soul-sucking contract work. I could instead focus some of my time on creating things which are risky, new, exciting. Under capitalism, the only creativity I truly get to express regularly is the creativity I have to employ to find work, to maximize pay, and to get money I’m owed. One of the most creative things I’ve ever done was call an employer’s mother. When she answered, I asked for him. She said he doesn’t live there. I apologized, said he owed me money, and that I was trying to connect with him because he won’t answer his phone. Within the next 24 hours, I was paid. That was creativity. But then I had to make progress on the next contract, which was a licensed property based on a popular TV show. I was transcribing the beats of the existing episodes, essentially writing synopses of existing material. That made me money. 

My first novel took me two years to publish. Why? Because I worried that I’d have to query agents. Because I wondered if I should save up money for a different editor. Because I wondered if I would be wasting time promoting something that wasn’t a sure-fire earner. Because I had contracts I prioritized instead, because I knew they’d pay out. 

Ironically, I published my first novel once some of those contracts, those employers, went belly-up. An employer decided to not pay me for work I’d done. I was up a creek, I had no idea what I could do. I scrambled for other work. But, I also took a big risk in a moment of insecurity. If I hadn’t been worrying about my basic needs, that novel would have released two years ago, and I’d already be on my seventh or tenth novel by now. 

Consumption Identity

CAPITALISM IS ALL ABOUT DEFINING YOURSELF BY WHAT YOU CONSUME. The very fact that “gamer” is a word people use to describe themselves, that’s consumption-based identity. Capitalism loves when people define themselves by consumption, because that builds repeat customers. When someone says they’re a “Marvel fan,” you bet they’re likely to see a Marvel film they might otherwise be on the fence about. 

When you are comfortable, and don’t have to prioritize what little consumption you’re enabled thanks to artificial scarcity, you can make wiser, safer choices. You don’t have to stick with the things you know you’ll basically enjoy, you can take risks on things you know you might not enjoy, because you’re not so constrained. When you only have $10 left after you’ve paid all your bills for the month, you watch the movie you’re guaranteed a relatively good time with. If your basic needs are covered, and you have a few hundred dollars to do with what you will, you might watch a few different movies, despite the chance that you might not like them. Then, movies which otherwise wouldn’t have a chance due to “risky” ideas do a little better. It becomes safer for both the consumer and the creative to take risks. That’s fucking beautiful. 

Do you think you’d be more willing to take risks if you had your basic needs covered? Have you ever eschewed a creative product because you’ve had to prioritize your basic needs? Tell me below.

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