Golan Levin: So tonight it’s now six o’clock April 26, 2021. And it’s my ter­rif­ic plea­sure to intro­duce our next speak­er, Marina Kittaka. Marina Ayano Kittaka is an artist and a video game devel­op­er best known as the co-author of the Anodyne series and Even the Ocean. She also wrote the essay Divest from the Video Games Industry!. Through devel­op­ing tools like Zonelets, Marina dreams of a decen­tral­ized and vibrant Internet cul­ture, the stolen birthright of the mod­ern human-loving intro­vert. She sees a future where cor­po­rate social media sites are dry and des­o­late waste­lands filled only with links to oth­er sites that we actu­al­ly enjoy. Folks, Marina Kittaka. 

Marina Kittaka: Hello. Thanks so much, Golan. Let me just start my pre­sen­ta­tion here, and screen share. 

Okay. Alright. Hi every­one. I titled my talk Why is this the world?” because that’s…the ener­gy that I’ve been feel­ing late­ly. Why is the world the way it is? I don’t know. I’m not going to answer that here total­ly, but I’m going to have that feeling. 

Starting off, yeah, I’m Marina as Golan said. I’m part of a duo with my friend Melos Han-Tani. And we are Analgesic Productions. So we’ve made the Anodyne series, Anodyne 1 and 2, Even the Ocean, and we’re cur­rent­ly work­ing on our next game Sephonie, which is about three ship­wrecked Taiwanese sci­en­tists explor­ing and research­ing a cave net­work full of fan­tas­ti­cal species. And yeah, I’m very excit­ed about that, and that will be com­ing up this year. 

Generally our games involve explor­ing dream worlds filled with action and puz­zles, strange humor, and med­i­ta­tions on the human capac­i­ty for change. And as a two-person team, Melos and I have to think real­ly deeply about kind of under­stand­ing our­selves as artists, as cre­ators, think­ing about what tools we have access to and have the time and inter­est in learn­ing, and the kind of moment that we live in. The way that things are struc­tured around us. Because it’s a real­ly big lim­i­ta­tion to…in cer­tain ways the only two peo­ple mak­ing games of the kind of type and scale that we do with these kind of worlds that you explore. And so we try to real­ly have each project be very spe­cif­ic in how we approach it and use the lim­i­ta­tions that we have to make some­thing real­ly spe­cif­ic as a result. Which is kind of remind­ing me of what Nathalie was talk­ing about with tools, you can also have lim­i­ta­tions just with­in your­self and do a lot with that. 

So kind of as an exam­ple, in the bot­tom left cor­ner, it’s Anodyne 2, the kin­da orange screen­shot. And that game was my first real project in 3D as an artist. And so there is a lot of like, jank­i­ness to it and a lot of kind of blur­ry weird­ness and odd shapes, and things where I was just learn­ing how to use cer­tain soft­ware. And we real­ly played up on those qual­i­ties to cre­ate this kind of unset­tling nature to the dream world. 

And the process has been real­ly dif­fer­ent for Sephonie, which you can see in the bot­tom right. It has a lot more of a coher­ent art style, and it has a dif­fer­ent tone to it as a result. And so we’re able to, and kin­da have to tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry, as our expe­ri­ence with the tools change. And we have to either con­tin­ue grow­ing in cer­tain ways or desta­bi­lize our­selves by try­ing some­thing new, depend­ing on kind of what we want to do with the feel­ing of the world. And I think that’s an inter­est­ing— The ques­tion about how do you man­age per­fec­tion­ism in your­self when you are kind of try­ing not to glo­ri­fy pro­tec­tion­ism in a way I think is a real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion that has a lot to do with my cre­ative prac­tice. Because it is like, you’re always try­ing to get bet­ter in some sense as an artist. It’s just inher­ent­ly sat­is­fy­ing to do so. But at the same time, if you kind of do that with­out putting thought into it, a lot of the time you can either end up spend­ing huge amounts of time on things, more than you would like to, or just say­ing dif­fer­ent things than you maybe set out to say. 

So the project that I was work­ing at the open source res­i­den­cy is called Zonelets, so I’m gonna talk about the lead-up to that. Zonelets is a blog­ging soft­ware. But yeah, for the last sev­er­al years I’ve been inspired by local and world­wide abo­li­tion­ist thought, abo­li­tion­ist kind of orga­niz­ing and activism and think­ing, which is kin­da call­ing upon the his­toric abo­li­tion of slav­ery to now be think­ing about abo­li­tion of police and pris­ons, bor­ders, impe­ri­al­ism, and so forth. And I think that’s a real­ly good exam­ple of peo­ple mean­ing­ful­ly ask­ing why is the world like this? Why is this the world that we live in? And it’s become part of a real­ly big con­ver­sa­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly where I’ve been liv­ing, in Minneapolis after the mur­der of George Floyd. 

So I was try­ing to think about how I could bring some of the influ­ence of these thinkers into cir­cles that I was already a part of. And that inspired the essay Divest from the Video Games Industry!. And that goes in a lot of dif­fer­ent direc­tions. I’m not gonna kin­da sum­ma­rize every­thing here, but it’s gen­er­al­ly about how the nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal progress and excep­tion­al­ism served to make the deep-rooted abuse and exploita­tion with­in the games indus­try appear palat­able or even nec­es­sary. And I wrote why I thought that those nar­ra­tives are mis­lead­ing, and I brain­stormed new ways of con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, progress, and worth. 

As an exam­ple I’m gonna read a lit­tle quote about kind of the con­cept of tech­nol­o­gy and nich­eness. And tech­nol­o­gy can real­ly be very broad, but it’s telling I think— Well, I’ll just read the quote. 

Computing pow­er, mas­sive scale, pho­to­re­al­is­tic graph­ics, com­plex AI, VR expe­ri­ences that attempt to recre­ate the visu­al and aur­al com­po­nents of a real or imag­ined sit­u­a­tion… cer­tain­ly these are all tech­nolo­gies that can and have grown in sophis­ti­ca­tion over time. But what The Industry con­sid­ers tech­no­log­i­cal progress actu­al­ly con­sists of fair­ly niche goals that have been arti­fi­cial­ly inflat­ed because cap­i­tal­ists have fig­ured out they can make mon­ey this way. Notably, I don’t use niche” here as an insult — aren’t many of the most fas­ci­nat­ing things intrin­si­cal­ly niche? But when one restric­tive nar­ra­tive sucks all the air out of the room and leaves a swath of emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion in its wake… isn’t it time to ques­tion it?

What if humans hav­ing basic needs met is tech­no­log­i­cal progress?” What if indige­nous mod­els of sus­tain­able liv­ing are hi-tech?” What if cre­at­ing a more acces­si­ble world where peo­ple have free­dom of move­ment opens up numer­ous high-fidelity mul­ti­sen­so­ry experiences?
Divest from the Video Games Industry!

So that was kind of part of the lead-up to Zonelets, the essay that I wrote back in sum­mer of 2020

So, lat­er on I was want­i­ng to blog. I had some dif­fer­ent ideas for just var­i­ous blogs I want­ed to do, talk­ing about video games, or talk­ing about… I want­ed to also do a blog about just like, word puz­zles. I like lit­tle word rid­dles and puz­zles. And so I want­ed to be able to host this some­where. I was very tired of Twitter as a site for com­mu­nal learn­ing. I think that you can get your foot in the door on a lot of dif­fer­ent top­ics, but that the longer I stayed on Twitter the more I saw that it was struc­tured to repro­duce the same shapes of dis­cus­sion over and over with just kind of the con­tent switched out. And it ulti­mate­ly did­n’t feel like I was real­ly learn­ing about the spe­cif­ic things, I was just learn­ing about how Twitter wants us to talk about things. And you know, the ways that those pres­sures are applied is shaped gen­er­al­ly by the rich, by Silicon Valley, by adver­tis­ers, by white suprema­cy. And here’s a quote from the Zonelets web site: 

These sites take the thoughts, care, and ener­gy of peo­ple and con­sume them to grow the plat­form. It’s not sat­is­fy­ing to browse a per­son­’s old writ­ing, both because of the site’s user inter­face and because of the style of writ­ing that the plat­forms encour­age. So the process of ideas evolv­ing and prac­tices devel­op­ing is obfus­cat­ed to cre­ate a dog­mat­ic, eter­nal present. 

So, I want­ed a plat­form that I felt agency over and that oth­er peo­ple could feel agency over, where it felt like it was yours and you could tend to it and invest in it, and have some­thing to look back on as maybe a log of growth and change and of remem­ber­ing how ideas were formed. 

And that remind­ed me of this part from The Little Prince, if you’ve ever read that book. In the begin­ning he starts out on an aster­oid with a rose, a sin­gle rose who he loves and he takes care of and he tends to. Later on he has gone to Earth and sees a gar­den full of many many ros­es and he feels kind of embar­rassed and is like, Oh, I thought my rose was spe­cial but there’s actu­al­ly lots of oth­er ros­es,” and feels kind of bad about that. But then lat­er on, he comes to feel this quote. 

Of course, an ordi­nary passer­by would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more impor­tant than all of you togeth­er, [speak­ing to the ros­es] since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I shel­tered behind the screen. 

Right before I made Zonelets, I made a lit­tle per­son­al­i­ty quiz that tells you which Ninja Turtle you are. And it was made to see how peo­ple in my cir­cles on Twitter and Facebook felt about HTML and CSS and cod­ing and blogs. And so basi­cal­ly I ranked the tur­tles in order of nerdi­ness, with Rafael to Leonardo to Michelangelo to Donatello, being least to most nerdy, and then kind of ranked these dif­fer­ent ques­tions based on that. Some of the ques­tions were very straight­for­ward about like, have you used HTML, have you used CSS, are you inter­est­ed in blogging. 

And then some of them were also just kind of cheeky. And I’ll just read this. 

Building a web page: 

* I’ve nev­er thought about build­ing a web page 

* I find the idea interesting.

* A pod­cast­er has told me that it’s hard to make web­sites and that nor­mal peo­ple have to use Squarespace.

* I used to tin­ker with HTML or Geocities a while back, but then greedy cap­i­tal­ists caused the dot com bub­ble and the Internet con­sol­i­dat­ed around a few monop­o­lis­tic sites and/or I just lost interest. 

This was anoth­er ques­tion, which unfor­tu­nate­ly the answers are kind of cut off, but this is the view of the soft­ware that I got a free tri­al of that shows you the data of peo­ple’s respons­es. But this was anoth­er kind of cheeky ques­tion that was Which of these forms of cod­ing have you done?” And I just tried to brain­storm a lot of things in kind of every­day life that I was famil­iar with or that I had heard of that in my mind felt basi­cal­ly equiv­a­lent to what I would be ask­ing of peo­ple who are using Zonelets. Because using Zonelets requires writ­ing HTML. And so some of the exam­ples of cod­ing that I put here are call­ing peo­ple with a tele­phone num­ber, using hash­tags, play­ing Sudoku, send­ing a com­mand to an auto­mat­ed text thing like Stop,” knit­ting, code switch­ing in lan­guage, recall­ing scrip­ture vers­es. Various things like that. And so I don’t know, I think it’s inter­est­ing to use a quiz—not real­ly sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly but just as a way of think­ing and as a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and as a way of just hav­ing fun with people. 

Zonelets. So here we get to the actu­al project. 

Basically Zonelets is a tem­plate for peo­ple to just kin­da copy a file struc­ture, and then they can make a blog post. And they do have to write the HTML, but start­ing out it’s pret­ty sim­ple because you’re just copy­ing stuff over, and then if you’re just hav­ing text you just have to enclose each para­graph in a P tag. And it’s not that hard to get start­ed with but it is kind of intim­i­dat­ing if you aren’t famil­iar with cod­ing or with HTML.

And so real­ly what I saw kind of as the project of Zonelets was the nar­ra­tive around it and the fram­ing of it on the web site of Zonelets. And so that was kind of the work I was doing as much as the code itself. Here’s a quote from the Zonelets web site:

Plenty of ser­vices can help you to cre­ate a professional-looking web­site with­out writ­ing a sin­gle line of code.” Now, thanks to Zonelets, you can cre­ate an UNPROFESSIONAL-looking web­site by writ­ing NUMEROUS lines of code! 

And then I kin­da say like, wait wait wait, come back. And lat­er on I say,

[Here’s] a metaphor: plen­ty of peo­ple know very lit­tle about cook­ing, but most peo­ple could cook and eat an egg. Imagine liv­ing in a world where if you craved eggs, your only options were to nab a fast food break­fast sand­wich ([which is] like social media) or go out to an expen­sive brunch ([which is] like a pre­mi­um web­site builder)! Both of those options have their place, but would­n’t it be unfor­tu­nate if it were kept secret that most peo­ple could lit­er­al­ly just fry an egg themselves?

Sure, parts of the inter­net can be very struc­tural­ly com­plex. But Zonelets is the fried egg” of the inter­net. Making text appear online is both utter­ly basic and infi­nite­ly pow­er­ful. If you write some­thing down, and some­one else reads it from afar… that’s it! That’s the whole thing! You’ve done it! And no amount of com­plex­i­ty or pol­ish or pro­fes­sion­al­ism or engage­ment met­rics or dopamine-hijacking frame­works could ever replace that. 

So that’s the sort of way that I was try­ing to frame and talk about the idea of using Zonelets so that the things that maybe looked hard would feel less hard. 

The paint and sip metaphor is anoth­er way that I think about Zonelets, which is that there’s those activ­i­ties where you can go with their friends and paint while drink­ing wine or what­ev­er and fol­low along with an instruc­tor. And I kin­da think that Zonelets could be like that, where you’re set­ting up a web site. I have a whole video tuto­r­i­al and text tuto­r­i­al that you can fol­low along with. And it’s kind of like a lit­tle activ­i­ty that you can do, and you’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to learn how to be a pro­fes­sion­al web devel­op­er but you’re gonna under­stand maybe some­thing about the Internet in a way that you did­n’t before if you aren’t famil­iar with that. And I think that’s real­ly inter­est­ing and that’s real­ly spe­cial because the Internet is all around us and such a big part of our dai­ly lives. 

Here are some exam­ples of what Zonelets looks like. There’s the Zonelets home page in the top left that I was talk­ing about. And that’s a very kind of basic theme, what it gen­er­al­ly looks like. And then there are some cus­tom themes that oth­er peo­ple have made. There’s Jira Trello’s blog in the top right, with a real­ly cool theme. In the bot­tom left, Hotel Paintings is this one-bit dithered theme, real­ly cool by Emilie Reed who also is prob­a­bly the most pro­lif­ic user of a Zonelet blog. Very good writ­ing. Sylvie made this real­ly cool blog/game. And actu­al­ly Emilie Reed has also put games on some of the blog posts. But this, Jump-Girl Syndrome, specif­i­cal­ly each blog post is a lev­el of a game. So the game as a whole is kind of the blog, and there is a lev­el and then text kind of about the lev­el. And that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing and excit­ing idea. I real­ly like see­ing cool things like that com­ing out of the work that I did. It was very exciting. 

And there’s some­thing that I get into in detail in my writ­ing as I talk about all these dif­fer­ent issues but that might get lost in kind of a sum­ma­ry, is I feel like it’s real­ly easy to fall into these kind of false dichotomies between this kind of idea that oh, the high-quality stuff, the indus­try stuff, that’s like high-quality. That’s like…good; it’s well-made. But it is bad. But it is evil in some sense. And the alter­na­tive stuff, the scrap­py stuff is low-qual­i­ty but it is moral­ly good. 

And I think that this is kind of an unnec­es­sary fram­ing for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. First it kind of like… You’re kind of ced­ing a lot of ground already to assume that— Well, I should fol­low along with my bul­let points here. So like yeah, this idea of like alter­na­tive” as a genre. Like what­ev­er is in the main­stream is one sliv­er of kind of all of human exis­tence and the way that peo­ple can think and cre­ate and be at any giv­en time. And that’s some­thing that becomes very clear, espe­cial­ly if you look glob­al­ly or if you look into his­to­ry. But I think that’s kind of part of why a lot of our cur­rent indus­tries are very antag­o­nis­tic towards preser­va­tion of the past. But it becomes very clear that okay, so peo­ple are doing things in this par­tic­u­lar way but alter­na­tive” is not one thing, it’s like, every­thing else.

And sec­ond­ly it cre­ates this sort of fetishiza­tion of authen­tic­i­ty in pain and trau­ma. And that can cre­ate this pres­sure release valve that sub­sti­tutes for actu­al change and jus­tice, and cre­ates this fighting-over-scraps men­tal­i­ty where some­one who is kind of out­side the main­stream or part of a mar­gin­al­ized group is seen as hav­ing this sort of low-quality but moral­ly cor­rect sub­stance to their art, which then that sense can be eas­i­ly tok­enized and brought into the main­stream just as much as the main­stream desires to kin­da defang it. 

And it’s real­ly unnec­es­sary, because there’s things that peo­ple are doing— Like, if any­thing has val­ue, it’s for rea­sons. There’s no secret law gov­ern­ing behind the scenes that some­thing is like, good because it’s bad or any­thing like that. If some­thing is good then it’s good. 

Sorry, I’m get­ting very…lost in the weeds here. 

The third bul­let point is it sit­u­ates moral and polit­i­cal strug­gle at the point of indi­vid­ual con­sumer choice, which is some­thing that I think hap­pens a lot with social media that I think is kind of just sort of tir­ing. Like…I feel like peo­ple broad­ly have pro­ject­ed a lot of judg­ment on them­selves and oth­er peo­ple about our indi­vid­ual choic­es when it real­ly should be about our col­lec­tive demands. It should be about what we want. Because most peo­ple have more in com­mon in terms of what our strug­gle is. The peo­ple who are in pow­er are very few. And so it’s like whether you pre­fer Call of Duty or Anodyne, we should all have hous­ing and health­care and a hab­it­able plan­et. And so I real­ly think that we can do a lot to not think about things in that way. 

So yeah, thank you to Golan and every­one who has helped me with this talk, and all the fel­low res­i­dents. It’s been real­ly excit­ing to be a part of this. And I feel like I spent 2020 hav­ing a lot of big ideas, and now my goal for 2021 is to have no ideas, and to accom­plish noth­ing of importance. 

And here are some of my influ­ences on here. And I think that’s it for my talk. Thank you so much. 

Golan Levin: Thank you so much Marina for this real­ly beau­ti­ful and con­sid­ered talk. That was bril­liant. Thank you. 

One of the things that we’ve I think come across a lot in our res­i­den­cy pro­gram with the Open Source Software Tools for the Arts is the notion that devel­op­ing tools is not only about the cod­ing, right. But that there’s so many oth­er kinds of work—labor—and oth­er ways of con­tribut­ing to open source soft­ware tools for the arts. And what we see in your Zonelets project is quite inter­est­ing because so much of the real deep con­sid­er­a­tion here has to do with the fram­ing, as you said. That you spent your time think­ing about how to posi­tion this. I think that real work is required to come up with the fried egg metaphor, or the paint and sip metaphor. Like, it takes a kind of…the work of devel­op­ing an out­side per­spec­tive on some­thing when the rest of us are the fish inside the water, right. 

So I won­der if you could maybe say a word about oth­er cas­es where you’ve seen some­one’s fram­ing that you real­ly admire, or what led you to this real­iza­tion that fram­ing is where the dif­fer­en­tial effort for you is. 

Marina Kittaka: Oh. Thank you, that’s a good ques­tion. I think what… I’m not sure if I’ll be able to come up with an exam­ple off­hand. But I think the way that I approached it was real­ly that— So I’ve always been more kind of an artist, com­ing at things from an artist’s per­spec­tive. But I did in high school and col­lege, before I was sure what I was going to be doing with my life, I was real­ly explor­ing web design as a pos­si­ble career path. And I think I always found it extremely…stressful and hard. And there are all these…there’s kind of like a machis­mo to. Like espe­cial­ly web design and graph­ic design. There were all these like things that I built up in my mind of like oh, you look stu­pid if you do this. Or it’s real­ly hard to do respon­sive design, which it kind of is in cer­tain ways. But also if you make some­thing super super sim­ple, that just is almost just blank HTML, then it’s not that hard to make it respon­sive. And to make it accessible. 

And so in the years since, when I did­n’t have that pres­sure of like oh, am I gonna have to become a pro­fes­sion­al web design­er, I had tried out doing lit­tle things with web design and with graph­ic design, and I real­ized that oh, a lot of that machis­mo and a lot of the things that made things real­ly scary were real­ly just block­ing me from doing sim­ple things that mat­ter to me, and that could mat­ter to some­one else.