For a good while now we’ve had the suspicion–and for many teachers and parents, a pretty strong conviction–that all of our devices and social media are really not good for us. The New York Times recently devoted its considerable resources to making that case in Kevin Rouse’s YouTube-focused Rabbit Hole. And while nowhere near as salient as, say, the 1619 Project for the current phase of the culture wars, Rabbit Hole demonstrates how online platforms drive much of the discourse around race and every other issue. Facebook, Twitter and the rest are where the skirmishes live, directly feeding into internal spaces of anxiety and ambition as much as into the external arenas of mass media and politics. Everywhere the real battles are pitched for souls individual and collective, we find rabbit holes lead us there.
So what might be the opposite of going down the rabbit hole?
Climbing out, right? Going up is the natural counterpart to going down. And we have to do both. Ascending and descending. To the mountaintop or to the riverbank. Upon the hills and through the valley. Out of the cave and into the light. We can pick our metaphor, recognizing that with it come all sorts of resonances, arguably far weightier ones than the Alice in Wonderland echoes of going down the rabbit hole. We might also be getting a little carried away, but at any rate the sense of what we’re going for is clear enough. We still need to use these devices and platforms if we care at all about understanding and participating in the discourse going on. We just need to find ways to turn them towards redemptive ends.
We’ve sketched the dilemma and are beginning to look for a way out. Let’s consider that in more detail. How instead of continually layering on more destructive comments and pushing people towards more extremism in their polarized in-groups and unanalyzed opinions, new technologies could actually produce new perspectives, critical reflection, and cross-group empathy for people across the spectrum. How the stories we tell and hear through video games and video sharing could amplify what is right and true by the test of our waking conscience, not tempting us to indulge our ever more base desires and forcing us to live out our social nightmares. How we can connect with more different kinds of people and broaden our understanding of the cultures that shape us thanks to a broader range of media and their creators, without tearing down all possible values or standards of value along with their calcification in the outmoded artifacts we’ve inherited.
Contending that there is one correct starting place for this work would be preposterous, but since we have to start somewhere, I’m proposing the videos of Jacob Geller. This despite, or rather because of, the tweet that reminded me about him and his work recently:
I hasten to add: that Patreon message didn’t come from me. But I did have a moment of recognition, a wave of there but for the grace of God go I, especially given my renewed determination to engage with people whose efforts I admire and whose ideologies I don’t (ie, Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz, aka the GSSB). As I pondered the motivations of the parties involved and read through the replies, I reflected that a) I don’t give nearly enough money to all the people whose work I admire, and b) I’m glad that my own audience is so small and my reach so limited when this is the sort of engagement that drives virality and comes with the territory.
Having sunk so much time already agonizing over the situation, I eventually put in my two cents in the form of a link to the then-mysterious secret church door (since revealed to be a mod) discovered in Nier: Automata. For a minute there it reminded me–and no doubt lots of people–of “The Decade-Long Quest for Shadow of the Colossus” Last Secret“. Jacob Geller’s video about that mystery was how I first ran across his work, and I’ve returned to it many times. Rather than binge-watching everything he’s ever made, I prefer to dip into the videos here and there. But then I’m more of a listener than watcher, myself. For anyone who would like to make video essays, his work is a masterclass. A contribution on Patreon gets access to his behind-the-scenes commentary, much as the GSSB pull back the curtain on their note-taking for a small fee.
Besides the one on Shadow of the Colossus, the Twitter kerfuffle sent me back to his video on the golem. Even there, where he isn’t directly talking about video games at all, Geller makes clear that he is interested in exploring the resonances between cultural objects of all sorts and enriching the lived experience of cultural inheritance, impacting positively the lives of all the people out there watching. He does a beautiful job connecting the dots, but also conveying the feel of human connection through art and storytelling, music and pacing, camerawork and his own camera presence. Without the theoretical method or academic rigor of a GSSB, he nevertheless is clearly building towards an overarching project. Consider his new video, “Every Zelda is the Darkest Zelda.” There, in the course of a retrospective on the beloved series, amid metaphors of light and darkness, he sharply tweaks the tendency in other youtubers (unnamed, but Thane Gaming comes to mind) to promote “icebergs” in pursuit of “depth,” and to focus on the “dark” as a badge of games’ and their own maturity. Geller successfully makes visual media, whether games, architecture, or picture books, more meaningful for more people by raising the level of quality for writing and production in the video essay form. He gives truly deep dives while keeping his sense of humor.
My quibbles with Jacob Geller are correspondingly fewer and less academic, too, than what I brought to the GSSB. From what I can tell, our ideological and theoretical/methodological approaches have little in conflict. On the ground of basic worldview when it comes to making criticisms and commentaries, I can count Geller a kindred spirit; as a practitioner, his work so far outstrips mine that I can’t even compare the two. But as a public figure, as we all are once we start to post on social media, he disappoints me. Calling the fan and patron’s message about Christianity, however clumsy, “dumb bullshit” and using it as a springboard to score likes and retweets just doesn’t sit well with me. I want to see the situation from his side–practically everyone who replied did, for better or worse–and any implication that he as a Jew is somehow being put upon is worth taking seriously. In the light of his video on the golem, though, it’s also worth considering that he has represented himself as someone interested in the way these online forms spring from and invite conversation with deeper cultural roots. To even broach the subject of religion, in a manner consistent with our own beliefs, in reaching out to a creator we admire–is that attempt to communicate something to be punished and mocked? Or is it, in this case, that Geller saw an opportunity to dunk on a ridiculous request and reap the social capital?
Whatever the lesson we take with us from this, we should of course be moving on. Twitter, YouTube, and the rest wait for no one. And thankfully, we don’t have to agree with their every interaction or even all of their premises to learn from and enjoy the work of the Jacob Gellers and Game Studies Study Buddies of the world. We probably don’t have the rhetorical means, the moral authority or persuasive powers, any of us, to really bring one another’s deeper beliefs to the surface and say come now, let us reason together in a productive way online. We do have the responsibility, though, to try.