I was recently introduced to Samo Burja’s concept of the live player. I was asked by Peter Limberg to do a series of illustrations for an essay he wrote on the topic, and the concept immediately resonated with me.
You see, I have been going through a transitional phase in my life for the last few years, which has consisted of lots of self-evaluation and life-review. Part of what I’ve been trying to sort out is why I have chosen to dedicate my life to art, and what it means to be an artist. I’ve even been hosting a podcast for the past year basically trying to understand the question. There are lots of ways to look at it, but one thing that was becoming clear to me was that being an artist is not as simple as getting good at making what we would conventionally define as “art”.
I’ve spent most of my professional career primarily improving my skill as a draftsman (aka getting good at drawing stuff). There are many artists I know who are passionate about this particular skill. They love to do it so much that even when they are not working they are still drawing. It’s not surprising that folks like these develop mind-blowing skills. However much I’d like to be one of these folks, I have to admit that that ain’t me.
I like to draw, but I also get tired of it, or even completely burnt out at times. So what is it that has driven me to be an artist? As I have stopped to contemplate it, it’s really about bringing something new into the world. Everything I have ever done, whether it has been music, film, comics or some form of civic engagement has been about creating something that didn’t exist previously. Not far from how Burja describes a live player.
A live player is a person or well-coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before. A dead player is a person or group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.
You may notice that this says nothing about any particular skill. It doesn’t require you to learn how to draw, or paint, or master the arpeggiator on your digital soundboard. It just requires that you depart from a script, do something unpredictable and invent some new tricks that have not been tricked before. This means that you can be a live player in whatever domain you choose to occupy, not just those where we wear berets and live off of Ramen Noodles. You can be a live player accountant, a live player teacher and a live player sanitation worker. One of my personal favorite live players is a civil engineer.
You may also notice that this says nothing about values. As Burja points out, authoritarian regimes are capable of being live players too. I think Nazi Germany at the early parts of WW II certainly demonstrated some live players moves. Serial killers and mass murderers are also capable of being live players. Flying commercial jet liners into iconic financial buildings certainly fits within the definition. Live player moves can be used to attack enemies, oppress populations and manipulate users. In short, it is possible to be a rivalrous live player — a live player who makes novel moves that benefit themselves but externalize costs (read: screw over) others.
This gives me the opportunity to steal my favorite parts of the live player definition for my own purposes in defining what it means to be an artist. To be an artist, it’s necessary but not sufficient to be a live player. For reasons I hope to soon make clear, an artist must also be non-rivalrous in the moves they make. To put it in more poetic terms: an artist must create new things in the service of beauty, truth and love — to tie humans together in what Limberg calls lifework. The artist must create the sacred.
Again, you don’t have to fit into the cliché of an artist for this to apply to you. I should even make it clear that this doesn’t even have to fit into some sort of professional box. It can be about almost any decision you make as a human being. When you think about it, it can almost be overwhelming. How many decisions do we make throughout the course of a day that are determined by some sort of script or conditioning? That being the case, how can we possibly hope to move the needle in the right direction?
First, I think it helps to see becoming an artist not as some sort of binary quality, where you either are an artist or are not, and rather conceive of it as existing on a spectrum. From this perspective it is about incrementally increasing the moves you make that are free from scripts. But to really orient yourself correctly it’s helpful to know what is on the other end of the spectrum. According to Burja, the other end of the spectrum is being what he calls a dead player, but we have another term for this that I think we can all relate to — addiction.
In this regard I like Marc Lewis’s definition of addiction. He describes addiction as a process of what he calls reciprocal narrowing. This basically means getting caught in a feedback loop of decision making where the options narrow with each iteration of the loop. Eventually you end up in a position that we would all recognize as addiction. You keep returning back to the same choice over and over again, because that is the only option that seems available. While we are all familiar with the stereotypical addict, I think this is an experience we can all relate to individually and collectively. It may have something to do with why zombie narratives are so popular. Dead player indeed.
As Lewis describes it:
When people fall into addiction, their environments shrink around them. Good friends, stable romantic partners, available, loving family members, physical comforts such as a safe place to live, job opportunities, and all the rest of it, gradually become less available. The opportunities for getting them back also become less available. Our attention and motivation, riveted now to just one source of satisfaction, lose their connection with the other sources of satisfaction that “normal” people enjoy. I see this as a literal narrowing or shrinking of the environment. Because of what I’ve called “now appeal” — or simply habit strength or deeply learned habitual behavior patterns — we focus only on what’s in front of us and forget how to go after other rewards. So other rewards fade in availability. They evaporate. They get lost.
When I was an addict, I lost close friends, I lost a woman I loved, I lost the opportunity to communicate honestly with my parents, I lost money, I lost a sense of social and physical safety, I got kicked out of school and lost that opportunity (for a while) and all the rest of it. This picture is typical, one way or another.
This addiction/art spectrum is useful because it allows us to see addiction and art both subtly and grossly, and to measure our progress or regression, as the case may be. We may not have a meth addiction, but we all likely have small compulsions and habits that limit our freedom. We may not all create civilization-altering masterpieces but we may have small opportunities to do things here and there that open greater freedom for ourselves and others. That is the corollary of Lewis’s model of addiction that is not captured in Burja’s definition of the live player — the same process that moves us towards addiction can be run in reverse. With each live player move we make, we open up further degrees of freedom. We increase our capacity for creativity. With time, our lives themselves become works of art.
Crucial to Lewis’s model of addiction is the role that society and place play in this process. Those that start in situations of narrow options are more likely to fall into the feedback loop of reciprocal narrowing and addiction. This is why I like to define art as being non-rivalrous. It is not only about making live player moves that benefit ourselves or our team but decalcifying a society and habitat that has become increasingly sclerotic with limitations and stifling scripts. It’s why we must choose walkable city grids over suburban cul-de sacs and civic engagement over social media. It is about becoming artists not just individually, but on increasing scales of human organization. It is about recognizing that we are part of an interconnected web of feedback loops. As Churchill once said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” As our own lives become masterpieces, they inevitably interconnect with our relationships and our environment, accelerating the likelihood of artistic opening outwards from the center and then feeding back into our own lives.
To move the needle then requires some introspection, yes, but necessarily we must also engage with others and find new ways to break out of our scripts. This is the imperative of our era. Monumental effort to demonstrate reason and evidence crashes up against lack of trust and tribalism. Unthinkable human potential is impeded by isolation and alienation. To find a way forward means finding new ways to connect and create. It’s a challenge we are all entitled to take on, in whatever opportunities are open to us. It doesn’t require heroic sacrifice. It requires humble, creative, courageous work. It requires us, in large and small ways, to let go of addiction and become artists.