As the History and Theory of Digital Art module is about to commence for us MADAHers, I thought this would be the perfect time to bring a strange item to your attention. Never thought that you would be reading, let alone playing, a game based on and built with Microsoft Paint? Well here is your opportunity to rectify that absence in your gaming/ MS paint repertoire. This is the free game/comic known as Homestuck, created by Andrew Hussie.
The most basic of imagery, the most sweeping of stories, and the mightiest of fandoms evident through the Kickstarter which had 24,346 backers, who raised $2,485,506. The original goal to be attained was $700,000. This was raised in 30 days. The size of Homestuck’s fan community was described by Lauren Rae Orsini as in the millions, with around a “million unique visitors” coming to the site daily.
The simple beginnings of the Homestuck phenomenon can be seen in the above image. The basic animation, the minimalist art style. Now play the video beneath, which was the kickstarter promo piece (loud but rockin’ chip-tune/rock-opera sound warning). Big difference, huh? This gives me hope that even the most meagre of projects can escalate into a fully fledged hit with a dedicated fan-base of satisfied player/contributors/backers. According to the wikipedia entry for Homestuck, as distinct from its Wiki:
“The initial style of the webcomic was developed to be advanced by fan contributions, with the fans deciding what actions the characters would take. However, once the fan base had grown significantly by 2010, Hussie moved away from this style because the fan input method had “grew too unwieldy and made it difficult…to tell a coherent story.” Though, while Hussie now controls the main plot of the story and the character’s actions, he still “visits fan blogs and forums” to figure out small things to add into Homestuck.”
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Homestuck. It’s success is based entirely on the strength of its fandom. The level of commitment and passion that players of this game exhibit is near unparalleled. I heard of it online through one of my haunts dailyoftheday.com. No advertising campaign, no big marketing budget to try and carve out a section of the market. Pure viral (or meme, depending on your preference), in the sense that this game gained over 2 million dollars through having its existence and quality/querkyness extolled online by fans and those fascinated by its style. This is one of the strongest examples of an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. According to Gordon Graham, writing on the issues of biotechnology: A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. The concept of the meme was initiated by Richard Dawkins, when he wrote in his work The Selfish Gene.
“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.”
Don’t believe me that homestuck can be considered a meme? Do a google image search using the terms homestuck cosplay. It will blow your mind how popular just the ritual of dressing up as these characters has become. Sample below, from http://mia-saridzava.deviantart.com. Or alternatively the aptly named http://fuckyeahhomestuckcosplay.tumblr.com.
Some may interpret this as ‘well anything can be successful online’ syndrome, where those items/detritus of humanity can attain a status in the digital world that would be impossible offline/IRL. So why is this distinction still made between the hardcopy disk in a case game and an online download? The same can be said for the field of literature. Why does this distinction between the online and offline versions of a book still matter to some? It seems to me to be the never ending cycle of high art versus low art being played out through the dichotomy of contemporary life; being both offline = high art, and online = low art. Thankfully Calvin and Hobbes are here to help us understand the distinction, courtesy of Bill Watterson.
Funny how ‘commercial’ is considered by Calvin to be ‘hack work’ and ‘low art’, given the current push to commercialise most output, both within art and the humanities, and certainly within the digital realm. Now that distinction is ‘clear’, let’s look at another example from Everything Shii Knows, a candid account of art, creativity, and who also shares my apathy for the Mona Lisa. The High art example is taken from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which been made into a film too. It debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same year.
The low art is the manga Emma by Kaoru Mori, set in Victorian London and is the story of a house maid who loves a member of the gentry, and deals with issues of class, and is now an anime (animated film). Again, I think that this distinction has to do with intrinsic value judgements, based on culture and place/time. This must mean then that the online and offline worlds possess different cultures and form judgements in different ways. Any online forum can certainly indicate the distinction, as cyberbullies and trolls alike take note of. So the offline democratic culture allows for anyone with an opinion to voice it, so too does the current online culture (excluding China, as Ai Weiwei attests).
The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (I refuse to call it literature) owes the vast majority of its success to eBook sales. The book has attracted criticism due to its origin as a fan fiction based on the Twilight novels. at least initially this was how it built up a solid and very audible fanbase. The anonymity of the eBook and the fact that nobody could tell that that the kindle being read out in public was actually displaying erotica (this is being generous, as it is usually referred to online as ‘mommy porn’) was a level of freedom for readers and was reflected in the book’s rise to prominence through digital devices first and traditional media (the ol pulped, processed and dried tree edition). The lesson I take from such disparate examples of the digital distribution model is this: it could make you millions, but at the very least you may find that select group of people who like the same detritus as you, sharing those things that make you happy (or at the very least occupy/entertain, not everything can be Shakespeare). It should be mentioned that the historical settings of MS Paint Adventures comics Bard Quest and Problem Sleuth goes some way to filling the Shakespeare quota, though then again…