Lets Change This Up! Thoughts On a Playful Culture

What do toy soldiers, Bruce Springsteen and a computer generated city have in common? On one level, not much. But on another, they draw attention to an increasingly important tension in our culture, around the modification and reinvention of all forms of art.

Gaming Miniatures and Remaking Your Toys

Fear my poorly painted warlord!
Fear my poorly painted warlord!

I started pondering this after reading Patrick Stuart’s excellent articles on HiLoBrow about wargaming miniatures. Despite the hours of pleasure I’ve taken in painting and remodelling my own figures, I’d never thought about their nature. That’s what happens when you pick up a hobby at the age of eleven – from then on out, it’s a journey through familiarity to disdain and finally nostalgia.

As Stuart points out, wargames miniatures, apart from being an incredibly detailed form of pop sculpture, are designed to be reinvented through painting and unique conversions:

It’s assumed that the user will and should want to alter the product. Means are designed specifically for the end user to do that. Is there any other form of art in which it is assumed that the consumer is also a minor creator?

I say, barkeep, that's an unusual light fitting you have there.
I say, barkeep, that’s an unusual light fitting you have there.

At first glance I accepted this defence of why something I love is extraordinary. But it didn’t take long for doubts to set in. I agree with all the reasons Stuart gives for miniatures being a fantastic form of art, but without even stretching I could think of another hobby where the consumer is a creator – Lego. From following the instructions on the box, through to throwing all your pieces together and building the best damn castle the living room has ever seen, Lego makes everyone an architect.

If art that makes the consumer a creator isn’t unique – and yes, I do consider Lego design art, just look at the joyful intricacy of the things that company creates – then how widespread is this sort of thing?

Singing Songs and Modding Games

An obvious comparison is song writing. Anyone who comes up with a song hopes that others will enjoy it, and knows that part of the enjoyment comes in singing the song. If you’re really lucky maybe you’ll get cover versions. If you’re in folk, you’ll get endless variations. And each time the song is replayed, the consumer, the person who heard and enjoyed it, is being a creator, making their own version of that song. It might be a near-identical performance, it might change genre like Postmodern Jukebox, it might be a full-on spoof. Regardless, it’s a new act of creation.

Then there’s the much more modern phenomenon of modding – the creation of adaptations and additions for existing computer games. Voo’s Reviews brought this to the forefront of my mind with a discussion of current modding debates, but it’s been around for almost as long as the games have. The gaming industry, being modern and forward looking, is even seeking ways to make modding part of their mainstream, monetised model. Sure, those attempts have included clumsy failure, but modding is still widely accepted and celebrated.

Given the popularity of musical covers and modding, are we actually very comfortable with art as something we recreate?

The Inevitable Push Back

Of course not. We’re human beings, and our behaviour is never that simple.

I could write a dozen blog posts on the current state of intellectual property law and how that limits this culture of re-invention. If you’re not already familiar with these issues, then the Crash Course Intellectual Property YouTube series is a great place to start. Debates around this are focused on power and business interests, but while those discussions are important, I want to consider a more subtle and insidious sort of reaction – the one that comes from within our subconscious.

A few examples I’ve experienced will show the breadth of this. In the comments on a video of Mumford and Sons covering Springsteen’s Atlantic City, someone protested that the singer’s status didn’t give them the right to change the song’s words. China Miéville’s excellent talk on the future of the novel was immediately followed by comments from audience members outraged at the idea of people changing the literary classics. When I recently made a Lego mad scientist layer, I sat it on a shelf for a month afterwards, unwilling to have my toy changed.

When we find or create something we love we want to protect it, and we try to do that by fixing it as it is. That’s only natural, but it’s not necessarily helpful. Different lyrics for Atlantic City don’t stop the original being out there. A chopped and changed War and Peace will still leave the original available. If I take apart my Lego town, I’ll still have the memory of enjoying the old build, not to mention the photos I took. And when our defensiveness extends to stopping others adapting things, that becomes problematic. We aren’t just looking after our own happiness, we’re limiting that of others.

Dealing with this isn’t easy. Not all forms of art are designed to be reinvented, but they’re all designed to spur further creativity. If that involves reinventing the old version, creating refinements and variations, doesn’t that just add to the pleasures out there?

Sure, we shouldn’t treat a Rodin sculpture like a Perry Brothers one – the Rodin is unique, and you can buy 40 Perry miniatures for £20. But in these days of mass consumption and easily accessible copies of songs, books and other products, maybe we need to let go and reinvent some more. Clinging defensively to what we have is exhausting. Inventing something new is reinvigorating.

I disassembled the mad scientist layer in the end. I don’t know what I’ll make next with those bricks, but in the end the creativity is more important than the creation.