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Top 10 Plays of the Week

What would you do if your partner was spending 17 hours a day online to earn a living? This short dystopian fiction by Elliott Burns paints an unsettling vision of a Gamer/YouTuber’s life(style) slipping out of control… 

posted February 22nd  2017

“Wow, just WOW everyone! So I’ve got some really big news I want to share with you… Earlier today, after I finished my lunch, Kung-Pow Chicken Sub by the way, I went into my boss’s office and calmly explained that I would be leaving the company. So I am now t-minus two weeks until I walk out those doors for the last time EVER.

Why am I doing quitting? Because of YOU! Because of everyone out there who follows this channel, who watches these videos, who makes up this community. After 3 years posting video after video after video, this channel now makes enough in YouTube advertising revenues for me to dedicate my life to it!”

[he holds a wireless webcam with his right hand; raised up it faces back towards him and the room, behind are drawn curtains, shelves of video games and collectable figures, his computer set up and a pro-gaming chair.]

“I want to say a huge thank you to everyone of you! This is a dream come true, for me, my wife (going on 6 months now guys), and our puppy.”

[crouching down with his left hand he raises a small fluffy dog to his chest.]

“Say “hi” Jasper, say “hi” to everyone. Jasper’s really happy that Daddy gets to stay home all day now and doesn’t need to leave him alone. You know what else it means… it means from today onwards I’ll be posting more videos, more of the content that you LOVE, like this:”

[the screen switches to footage of a plane pulling a barrel-roll over a middle-Eastern oil refinery; overlaid his voice can be heard erratically.]

“This is Goose Feet! OVER! Deploying payload,”

[just before the right-wing clips a tower, pulling to first-person perspective he is launched into the air, rifle in hand, screaming:]

“MAYDAY MAYDAY pilot down over enemy territory,”

[pulling his chute.]

“I’m going in hard, guns blazing, send EVAC NOW, this is not a drill, I repeat NOT-A-DRILL!”

[the screen switches back to him in his room.]

“Not to mention our times together…”

[now we see a squad of armour clad super soldiers charging up a hill, plasma blasts rain down overhead from multi-jawed aliens and explosions erupt either side; amongst the chaos and lighting-effects he’s heard reciting the Micky Mouse Club theme tune:]

“Who’s the leader of the club, That’s made for you and me, M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E,”

[as his team mates respond with burst of laughing and cries of:]

“SHUT THE F*** UP.”

[back in his room again he pants, physically exerted by his excitement.]

“But most important of all, it means I can dedicate more time, NAY, dedicate my life to showing off the best-of-the-best of your clips, the greatest examples of battle from all over the world! Every week I will be showing the most courageous, outrageous and outright insane feats of computer game brilliance that you send me. And each week you can vote on who is the greatest-of-the-great. The insanest-of-the-insane.

Because I LOVE you guys, I LOVE that you’ve invested in me, this channel, this community that we’ve built together. Keep the likes, the comments, the shares, everything coming. Follow me on YouTube, on Facebook, on Instagram. There’s going to be competitions, give-aways, constant non-stop banter-rific laughs…”

[his focus trails off slightly, pulling out of character before dropping back in…]

And of course, as always, my content is free to view. Subscribe and help me continue making this dream come true, and check out my online-store (link in the description below) for some excellent merchandise!

I can’t say how much this means to me. All your support, it makes my life worth living… So for now, until next time, PEACE OUT, SandCastle128.”

[the screen splits into 12 pieces showing a selection of related videos]

 March 1st 2017 00:23am

Downstairs the kettle is whistling; it’s on the gas and there’s no sign anyone will take it off soon. His wife is asleep with the dog curled up by her feet. In ‘his office’ the glow of his monitor illuminates his face, providing enough light for the webcam to see him, yet leaving the background in darkness.

With his headphone-mic set he can’t hear the kettle. He won’t notice it until this round is over with either the terrorist or tactical-squad winning.

He’s entered the villa through an open first-floor window. Downstairs a firefight is breaking out as three teammates try to catch the terrorists in a pincer movement, breaching from the front and back entrances. He’s careful to avoid traps, they may have left explosive around any corner, or could be camping, waiting for him to make a mistake. Any second now his team should be able to identify how many hostiles are on the ground-floor; however, until then he’ll need to exercise extreme caution.

The fifth member of their squad is holding back, sniper scope poised to take a shot through any exposed window. It’s the third round and they’re two games down, the enemy are co-ordinated so they’re working to draw them out.

His teammates report comes in: “They’re all on the ground floor. SandCastle128, on my mark, assault from the main stairs.” A deafening volley of machine gun fire opens up, his HUD reports one target down, sniper fire takes a second. “GO GO GO.” He runs into the fight, catches two targets from behind, raises his shotgun to iron sight and pulls the trigger.

His wife smacks him round the back of the head. His shot misses and the targets turn filling him with lead. “Kettle’s boiled, I’m going back to bed!” That live-stream went out to 4,156 people on Facebook.

To read the rest of the story, please download Top 10 Plays of the Week as a PDF

Pawnshop – the Greek Reality Board Game

What is the relationship between state corruption and economic collapse in Greece?

Lina Theodorou, artist and creator of the board game ‘Pawnshop- Days of Mistrust’, talks with Furtherfield’s Ruth Catlow about Grexit, Brexit and crisis in Europe.

I met Lina Theodorou, the artist and creator of Pawnshop, in her apartment on a sunny Sunday morning in Berlin. It was just one week after the UK referendum resulted in a vote to leave the EU. I was in Berlin to take part in an event called Art, Money & Self Organization in Digital Capitalism, the first in a series of events called Arts and Commons, organised by Supermarkt.

Theodorou and I quickly got onto the topic of Brexit. We compared notes. She wondered if, like Greece, the UK government would choose to ignore the result of the referendum, fail to invoke Article 50, and stay in Europe after all. That possibility had not occurred to me. She talked about her memories surrounding the Grexit debate- the distress, the uncertainty, the shocking hatred and hostility expressed between family members and people previously considered friends. I had been deeply shaken by the upsurge of street-level racism on the streets of Britain.

Pawnshop, the artwork that is also a board game, was set up for play, laid out on a table in her studio. It is an inversion of Monopoly: the same square board, the pieces, the bank, the cards, the dice. However in this game the player starts the game with no money, only property – jewelery, a bouzouki, antique furniture, a flat- and pays a European tax of €1500 when they pass Go (if they get that far).

Players proceed around the board, according to the luck of the dice, along a path strewn with dilemmas. A second row of squares is used to keep track of the time spent dealing with the consequences of their choices- jail sentences, or hospitalizations for example. As they move around the board, they pick one of the cards, depending on their landing square, and must choose how they will respond to the given dilemmas.

Theodorou tells me that the game is based entirely in fact. For years she has collected newspaper stories in Greece. And here they are gathered in four categories of cards – Dilemma, Involvement, Debt and Luck- to encapsulate the experience of daily life, for everyone, in modern day Greece. ”If you are honest you lose” she says.

Here an upbeat and colourful video sets out the rules.

On her website are photos of engrossed players at Bozar, Center for fine arts, Brussels; at the exhibition TWISTING C(R)ASH; at Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain « Le Commun » in Geneva; and at the exhibition It’s Money Jim, but not as we know it, at Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art Vienna, and As Rights Go By, Museumsquartier, Vienna. She says it’s important that at the beginning players laugh… but because of ”synesthesia”, the longer they play, the more uncomfortable they become, they feel the ethical discomfort in their bodies.  

Theodorou and I digress again, coming back to the Europe question. Because I’m in Berlin I think about Germany’s role. Germany at the heart of Europe is perhaps more part of the problem than they realise. The style of bureaucracy is molded to reflect the German mentality and their industrial system.This is coupled with a confidence in the correctness of the system – that Theodorou points out, is accompanied by the Northern European, Calvinist attitude – anyone who does not comply is wrong and must be punished. “But what is good for Germany is not necessarily what is good for Greece” she says. In Greece for many years the economy was made up of many small entrepreneurs, small businesses, shops, and a community focus” Why must we suddenly give this up in favour of big business. “Why do you have to destroy something that is healthy?”After the banking crisis in 2008 pawnshops started popping up on every street in every town in Greece.

Theodorou tells me that Pawnshop is the Greek reality board game.

“Your father is sick, do you pay his hospital bill?
Yes: pay €3000 and he lives for another 6 years,
No: unfortunately he dies, but you receive a life insurance pay out of €75,000”

Picking an ‘Involvement’ card means that that player’s decision will have consequences for other people too; Debt (is the biggest pile of cards).

Gentrification strategies have failed in Athens. Back in 2006 the rich Greeks, many of whom were also art collectors, started to organise the large scale art events, (in which of course the artists worked for free), but it didn’t take. Then in 2008 the banks collapsed, the economy became surreal, but somehow, Athens remained the same. Perhaps this because regeneration does not have the ever-rising bubble of property prices to support its economy. In Greece everyday people do not speculate on the housing market (as we do in the UK). Rather a house is something you keep for ever in the family.

Theodorou describes the real world Greek tax system as “insane”. It changes every 3 months, Even the accountants have difficulty keeping up with the laws. This alone forces many people into the black market. Then the web of bureaucracy protects the hierarchical status quo and people in higher positions hold onto their power by putting obstacles in the way of others.

The only way to win this game (on the board and IRL in Greece) is with good luck. Good luck is the only way to avoid ethical discomfort or financial ruin.

The Luck cards (also based on fact as reported by the newspapers) are hilarious. “A politician hits you with her car, but fortunately the accident is witnessed by the media – collect €2500”.

“Some rich ladies wish you a Merry Christmas and hand you €100”.

Apparently Athens newspapers have reported tales, for the last few years, in which “ladies” have distributed money to “the poor” from black windowed limousines.

Pawnshop is a polemic on corruption. Small corruption. Long standing, Greek-style, everyday corruption from which no-one can escape. The universal, forced collusion in corruption, and its corrupting effect on the spirit of Greek citizens and society, is set out in the game mechanics. The playful and social medium of the game means that the impact of contemporary Neoliberal politics on the Greek ‘everyman’ is made legible, feelable and discussable: unending, ethical traps; the impossibility of old-style moral political clarity; the flushing of righteous action, solidarity, resistance or even survival. Corruption all the way up and down.

I question Theodorou carefully, because I have long been suspicious of the narrative that says that corruption is the cause of Greece’s economic problems. But the corruption is a fact. While it is not necessarily the only or even the primary cause of its economic distress – which is very very real- the lack of trust in the state is debilitating and has a stagnating effect on the economy.

Pawnshop sits in an honourable tradition of artist’s activist games: to change mindsets and attitudes by actively implicating players in a reconstruction of values – see Mary Flanagan persuasive research about crticial play and the many attitude-hacking games coming out of her lab Titlfactor.  Also Brenda Romero’s chilling Train game, Yoko Ono’s Play it by Trust. And for games that train for resistance and solidarity in games such as Escape from Woomera, Debord’s Game of War, and my own pacifist chess hack, Three Player Chess.

The Game of War played by Class Wargames  as part of Invisible Forces exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery in 2012
The Game of War played by Class Wargames  as part of Invisible Forces exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery in 2012

A look around Theodorous portfolios of works reveals a long practice that crosses agitprop, video, installations, and networked pieces.

The work all builds on close observations of contemporary political and social systems. Through graphical exuberance and humour these observations are rendered just (barely) bearable so that we are able to spend time with complex, difficult situations and suspend our certainties. And this is necessary and important. We need to face the complexities and ethical contradictions of contemporary politics. There’s no time to lose.

Before the referendum, I found myself uneasy about actually campaigning for “Remain” in spite of my desire for a pan-European peoples’ alliance. This was because I couldn’t ally myself with the dominating political arguments proposed by the Conservative party (and backed up by big-business and the establishment). I also didn’t want to participate in a binary campaign that stamped on the dignity of the layer of people in the UK who are already so disenfranchised by the effects of austerity cuts (and many years of other systemic injustices). This moment revealed for me, and for many others in the ‘social liberal’ layer, a chasm between my own values and experience and those who voted to ‘Leave’. And a desire to find a way to connect. PostBrexit the reality board game may be just the thing we need to help us come together and play our way through the effects, consequences and possibilities.

Glass houses, Roman numerals and shady worlds. Annet Dekker in conversation with Femke Herregraven.

‘About 50% of global trade is channelled through tax havens and 83 of the 100 largest multinationals are based in the Netherlands for fiscal reasons. The flow of money seeks the path of least resistance – but where exactly do those paths lie today?’

This is how graphic designer Femke Herregraven began a presentation about her new online game Taxodus. Herregraven designed the prototype of Taxodus, a game about offshore tax avoidance, during a master class at Sandberg-Mediafonds. The offshore system offers companies advantages in countries where legislation relating to non-nationals guarantees certain privileges, for example, when it comes to corporate structures, in certain areas of business confidentiality, or low taxation. Taxodus is an accessible way to discover how you can avoid paying taxes, and if you can’t get away with it completely, how you can make sure you pay the lowest possible amount.

Annet Dekker: Taxodus is a game about offshore business practices. How does it work?

Femke Herregraven: As a player you choose an existing multinational company or bank with a specific profile and then you look for the most favourable countries to set up a subsidiary and accumulate income by paying as little tax as possible. Each country has a specific transaction profile. For example, companies involved with Intellectual Property Rights find the Netherlands most appealing, while oil companies are drawn to other countries. The game offers a random number of options and calculates what these yield for you. You can compare the results with other countries to achieve the game’s goal of reaching the end with as little expenditure as possible. The game is based on actual information on withholding tax in global tax treaties.

AD: This isn’t a topic you usually encounter in art. Where does your interest in this subject originate?

FH: In 2010 I was asked by the Virtueel Museum in Amsterdam to research the identity of the Zuidas during a residency. The Zuidas, which literally translates as ‘South Axis’, also known as the ‘Financial Mile’, is a large, rapidly developing business district in Amsterdam. Much like Richard Florida, they wanted to ‘cheer up’ the neighbourhood. My questions about the companies located there received only vague responses; there weren’t any lists, or names, or post boxes, and with the exception of known names like Google and Facebook, the other companies that are based there was a mystery. To trace what type of businesses might be located there I spent weeks indexing the entire Zuidas from the Chamber of Commerce’s trade register. I indexed the occupants by street and house number and then compiled three telephone books from the data. All sorts of unusual data and patterns became evident – some addresses only have one occupant, while others have more than a thousand of the so-called mailbox companies that only exist on paper. This is also apparent from the names: some only consist of Roman numerals.

All this information piqued my curiosity and I wondered why these companies were situated there and what they were up to. The next step was delving into Dutch tax law and it became clear that there are enormous financial benefits to setting up a company in the Netherlands. This is a major selling point when Holland is promoted abroad. The entire offshore system has operated below the radar for a long time – sometimes we catch a glimpse of it – but quite how it works in its entirety almost no one knows. The first step to understanding this is visualising it to gain insights, and then you can ask specific questions. Taxodus classifies this information by visualising it: from mining in the Congo to oil companies in Italy and Libya.

Taxodus, by Femke HerregravenImage: Taxodus by Femke Herregraven

AD: It all sounds very murky!

FH: It’s all completely legal, but shady at the same time. If a foreign company doesn’t want to open a physical office in the Netherlands, it hires a trust office that takes care of the bookkeeping, drafts the annual reports and appoints a CEO. There are countless small trust offices that manage huge numbers of foreign companies on paper. Everything is done according to Dutch law and the tax benefits in Holland are hugely beneficial for foreign companies. For example, small businesses in the Netherlands pay more than thirty per cent tax, while foreign companies avoid a large part of that taxation due to tax planning. The presumption that foreign companies basing themselves in Holland is beneficial for national employment is also misleading because most of these companies only exist on paper and don’t employ anyone. The trust offices advise against opening a physical office and taking on any staff because Holland attaches great value to its employment policy, which makes dismissing personnel difficult. A ‘mailbox’ company avoids all these complications.

AD: But the way in which you visualise this is also subjective because you manipulate the data.

FH: Yes, I selected companies that people will know or which appeal to the imagination. Unfamiliar names won’t really be noticed, but once you realise that almost everyone participates in this system, from Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, Walmart, Google and Facebook to Chanel, then it takes on a different immediacy or value for many people. If you look at this on a wider scale – globally – you will see, for example, that 60 per cent of large companies in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain use the Netherlands to take advantage of these types of constructions. This is legal and it’s also beneficial to the Netherlands, but when Dutch politicians insist on more transparency from Greece and lecture the country from up on high it smacks of hypocrisy. You see the same thing with a lot of development aid to countries in Africa: most of that money is diverted to the bank accounts of African leaders in offshore tax havens. Someone has done the maths: the debt of the entire African continent is less than the monies African leaders hold in offshore tax havens. A ‘mailbox’ company by itself is not that suspicious, but with everything else it creates the holes through which (public) money can disappear. My primary intention is to make these flows of money visible and question them, because once it’s out in the open people can decide for themselves if this is our idea of a sustainable economy.

AD: Of course, your game can also be interesting for existing companies who can use it to see where and how they can best invest? Is Taxodus the new Monopoly?

FH: Yes, in a way it is, but in reality companies have been doing this for ages. General Electric supposedly has a department employing about a thousand people who are busy with this on a full-time basis. I don’t think my game will suddenly improve things. Yet, the point is that the knowledge about international tax planning is now only in the hands of experts like fiscal lawyers and accountancy firms, and isn’t accessible to the rest of us. That’s also what Taxodus is about, making a tool so that we can track what they’re up to.
Monopoly is an interesting comparison because it originated as a critique of capitalism and private monopolies. The games are comparable, but Taxodus goes further. If you make a move in the game that correlates to reality then you are informed about this and receive a reality-bonus. It’s at this point in the game that investigative journalism comes into play.

AD: How do you relate to investigative journalism?

FH: My projects frequently begin from a journalistic position and for this one I meet with journalists, fiscal lawyers and researchers quite often. Yet, I’m a designer and I don’t want to write articles but use other methods to provide insights into topics. For me design is not an end in itself but a way to research, express and contribute to debates in society. This means also collaborating with other disciplines and experts: a group of fiscal experts is currently helping to remove errors and provide feedback. Obviously, it’s impossible to create a 1:1 translation, there will always be things that aren’t entirely accurate or that have to be left out, but it is important that the broad outlines are clear and correspond with reality.

AD: Why a game?

FH: Avoiding and evading tax is complex but you can learn the psychology of this system by playing the game. Taxodus is actually a kind of chess game. The rules aren’t simple and your eventual benefits depend on all sorts of interrelated factors. You have to continually take strategic decisions to advance in the game. All this information is incorporated into the game and the various tax treaties between different countries gradually become clearer. You are aided in this by advisors. At the start of the game you chose a particular advisor. Different advisors offer different advice, some will try to find legal alternatives while others try to convince you to bend the rules. Players can ask for a second opinion at any point in the game and manipulate regulations and treaties. This enables players to steer the game in the direction they choose. As in reality, a player has to have the possibility to have complete control. Ideally the game should be a do-it-yourself kit that you can add things to, an open game of strategy.

AD: What do you mean exactly? Can you name an example?

FH: The simplest way is to play it alone; the more complicated version is played with others in real time. At a certain point you can earn loyalty points by, for instance, evading high taxation for your parent company. Once you’ve arrived at the loyalty level, you can change roles, perhaps becoming a government employee who modifies regulations ever so slightly to make it more beneficial for yourself. You can also block other players in this way. This is an obvious reference to the increasing merging and blurring of the interests of large corporations and political leaders.

AD: How do you keep up with actual changes in the real world?

FH: It isn’t as if new information is constantly being made available – a lot of countries are reluctant or refuse to release ‘sensitive’ information. Tax treaties and regulation doesn’t change too often, but when they do, these changes will also be incorporated in the game. The English researcher Nicolas Shaxson, who is very active in charting the offshore system, says that people have to first become aware of what’s happening before they can think about how to deal with it. I hope my game and visualisations can contribute to this awareness raising.

AD: When or how does the game end?

FH: You have a certain amount of time before you have to submit an annual report for your company, then your trajectory is incorporated into the database and you can see what your score is. You can also compare it to other players and download their fiscal structure, which adds an element of competition and makes it a crowd-sourced investigation. By playing you contribute to the research and help expose the layers.

AD: Will Taxodus be a commercial success?

FH: My main concern is to make a tool that makes this small yet incredibly significant part of our opaque financial world more transparent, and especially more public. I think artists have a responsibility to broach topics like this. People find it all quite shocking when I tell them about Taxodus, but for those who are directly involved in the actual system it’s mere child’s play. This type of project can stimulate discussion and determine what is and what isn’t desirable.
This approach was shown to be successful with another project, the Art Reserve Bank. We set up a bank with a small group of artists and designers and introduced a new currency in the heart of the Zuidas as a way to encourage discussions about the financial sector. Our bank – a vault, an exchange counter and a glass house with a minting press: a bank brought back to basics – is located across from the ABN AMRO headquarters, and each day some of the employees and other people come by to see what we’re doing and have a chat. People also buy our coins, which are designed by a different artist each month. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but there is certainly enough curiosity. One problem is that people are personally interested but refuse to make any statements in a professional capacity. De Nederlandsche Bank (the Dutch central bank) recently sent us a letter stating that we cannot use the word ‘Bank’, threatened us with a fine of up to 2 million euros and invited us for a talk. These types of discussions are what we aim to achieve. Our goal isn’t necessarily to introduce a new currency; instead we want to underscore that fact that the bankers and financial experts of this world do not have exclusive rights to debate and decide what happens on financial markets.

———
A Dutch version of this interview appeared in Tubelight, September 2012.
Femke Herregraven: http://www.bitcaves.net