John Walker's Electronic House

Tag: Rants

You Might Not Like AI Art, But It’s Here To Stay

by on Dec.14, 2022, under Rants

“An artist smashes a computer, digital art.”

The word “Luddite” has unfairly pejorative connotations in the modern age. In the early 19th century, English textile workers saw where their industry was heading with the introduction of technology, and recognised the imminent destruction of their livelihoods. So, in response, the workers would protest the new factories, and famously, destroy the rival machines.

It was hopeless. Such protesters were shot by the factory owners, and eventually the British army was used to suppress their wider movement. And, inevitably, machines became the primary way to create textiles, as is still the case today. The Luddites were not—as they are so often parodied—afraid to embrace modern technology. Instead, they were simply aware that it would starve their families. They were trying to defend their livelihoods, protect their loved ones, and responded with physical violence against capitalist violence.

This is all to say, I entirely get why artists are so furious about AI art creation. This new technology has the real potential to—at the very least—carve into a craft that has existed for thousands of years. If a book cover or movie poster or piece of background art can be created by typing a sentence into a website, then of course artists who’ve trained their whole lives to be masters of their craft are going to lose work. It must be terrifying, not least with the speed with which such extraordinarily powerful AI has appeared in the last year. I hate that very rich corporations, that absolutely could and should be compensating those from which they are gaining, are not.

I’m also aware that if AI can start doing as good a job as, or even better than, conventional artists, then it will win. Because every example of technology replacing artisan skill in the last few hundred years has ended that way. The protesting, the fury, and the sense of unfairness, will have no bearing on anything, and the computers will win out. This isn’t pessimism, and nor is it “giving up”; it’s just simply understanding reality.

“The last human stares at the sunset as the bombs drop, digital art.”

I don’t have a solution, because I don’t think there is one. Much as the Luddites hopelessly smashed apart that which would replace them, it’s completely understandable that current artists wish to find a way to smash apart this latest technology. However, it’s even more futile a task in the digital age, and attempting to find methods to do so is going to be very ugly, and very self-defeating.

This is already demonstrably the case in the current main messaging against AI art: It is, we’re endlessly told, “theft.” As someone who has been a loud voice for the last twenty years within the (mostly hopeless) movement to prevent corporations from tricking the wider public into thinking that copying is theft, this couldn’t be a more demoralising position to see taken by the creatives themselves. Copying isn’t theft, it never has been, and it never can be. This isn’t a moral argument in favour of copying, it’s a factual argument about what words mean. Theft requires the original item to no longer be in the original owner’s possession, and no matter how many knots people try to tie themselves in, that can never, ever be applied to copying. Indeed, you wouldn’t steal a car. But you’d sure as hell download one. Call it bad, fight against it, but don’t call it something it isn’t.

It’s genuinely bewildering to have lived through the Napster years, when suddenly the world realized that music had at last been freed from its one-hundred-year-long plastic prison (and during which time official album sales spiked worldwide, and record labels never made more money, until they had Napster shut down and sales started falling again), where people were threatened by corporate goons out of their life savings because their grandkid downloaded a Sum 41 album, to then see the creators of art attempting to use “theft” as their attack against corporate AI.

Copying may be something you’re against! You may wish to legislate against copying. Rather famously, there’s that whole “copyright” system, that itself has been brutally twisted into a weapon of oppression rather than a tool of freedom. But it isn’t theft, it isn’t “stealing,” and I am aghast at the decades-long backward step at seeing this being wheeled out by the “goodies,” in an attempt to fight the “baddie” corporations.

Should artists be compensated for their creations? Of course, if their creations are desired. I am a passionate believer in the patron system, where artistic work is paid for at the point of creation, and I believe that credit should always be given to those who have created something. I also passionately believe in sharing, and am vehemently against systems where a creator is paid in perpetuity for work completed years previously. I don’t feel beholden to the estate of Monet or to whichever current painter if I fancy printing off one of their paintings, any more than I think I should pay the plumber who fixed my tap every time I use the sink. I get paid for my time when writing articles about games, not whenever anyone reads them in five years’ time. (And should a time come when AI can usefully critique artistic creations like games, then yes, I’ll be screwed too.)

Yes, AI systems are fed with potentially millions of pieces of art, from which its code learns the patterns, systems, techniques, styles, and then attempts to reconfigure them into something original. And yes, they are mostly doing this with no permissions from the creators of the pieces of art that go in. But here’s the bad news: that was just a very accurate description of all of art ever.

“A couple watches as the stars fall from the sky, watercolour.”

No artist creates art in a vacuum. Since the first cave person scrawled in mushed up flowers on a cave wall, all art has been formed based on what has come before. All artists, since the beginning of recorded history, have learned art by copying other art. None needed to ask for permission—hell, for a good period of history, they were actively encouraged by the original artists. The most famous artists you know, especially those known for pioneering new movements, began by learning the patterns, systems, techniques and styles of those who came before, and then attempted to reconfigure them into something original. Picasso was one hell of a realistic portrait artist, as taught by his father, before he ever explored Cubism.

Computers didn’t think up AI art generation on their own. It was programmed by people, whether for good or evil. This isn’t a robot takeover—it’s new man-made technology doing as good a job as human creators. And as soon as we started “feeding AI a thousand…” of whatever, to see what it would generate, this became inevitable. You can hate it, and you can hate the corporations that have been quick to take advantage of it, but trying to redefine it as something more evil than the printing press or the self-scanning cashier machine in the grocery store is folly.

(I want to clarify something here, that I fear would otherwise be misunderstood: I am not advocating for people to directly use an artist’s previous creations for their own financial gain. I believe, obviously, an artist should be compensated in such a circumstance, unless that creation has been graciously released under a copyleft license that allows such use. However, I do believe that any piece of art is a legitimate source for inspiration, and being inspired by any piece of art when creating one’s own, even for financial gain, is clearly legitimate, given—again—all of history.)

In the latest of Luke’s passionate tirades against this technology on Kotaku, he firmly states “machines don’t make art. They’re machines!” This is, in my opinion, utterly wrong. Because as anyone who’s had to suffer through any interminable “are computer games art?” article will know, art is in the eye of the viewer. I’ve typed in sentences to AI art creation software that has produced images that are utterly beautiful. Of course it’s art, no matter how much I might not like that the tool that created it is owned by a corporation that sees no desire to compensate those from which it has gained.

I think there’s a very uncomfortable uncanny feeling about AI art, but I think it’s because it is art. There’s a piece of soul in it, but it’s not earned. It’s likely the scraps of soul that survive the mechanical processing of what’s been fed in. That’s existentially unsettling.

I hate it a bit, too. I mean, I can draw to some degree. I’ve been paid to draw silly cartoons for things over the years. I’ve sold them on greetings cards. Now, you can create something just about the same by asking Dall-E for a “cartoon of a rabbit in a medieval helmet.” Mine’s on the left, Dall-E’s is on the right:

Like all other artisan crafts where technology has allowed the mass production of very similar creations, I know that we will see AI creations replace a large amount of what would have been commissioned to artists. I also hope that many will recognize the worth of commissioning a person to use their skills to create something utterly bespoke, specifically for your needs.

I’m also aware that I can’t wait for AI to replace the current gouging of corporations like Getty and Shutterstock, who try to charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for copying an infinitely duplicable jpeg. Sure, they’ll all try to figure out how they can monetise it for a bit, before such technology escapes their confines, but it won’t last long.

Yes, many will be utterly furious with me for writing any of this, no matter how clear I make it that I would prefer for artists to be compensated, and for original work to be commissioned. But I won’t allow myself to deny two core truths, no matter how little I might like them: Technology always successfully replaces the mass production of artisan craft, and fighting to prevent it is a depressingly futile act that hurts the creators whose livelihoods are being threatened. As awful as any of this might be, it doesn’t change reality.

Artists and creators should not be fighting this with the language of greedy corporations, with attempts to wield corrupt systems like “copyright” and “intellectual property,” making ridiculous claims of “stealing,” but instead by proudly standing up and showing why what they create is special. Artists should boast of their talent, loudly display their work, seek patronage, and work together to create systems that better put themselves in front of people.

You—you—should respond to this by being diligent in your beliefs. Fund artists. Find their Patreons and sign up. Scream at sites like ArtStation until they add a button that lets you financially support artists you admire. Pay for art you care about. That’s a damn site more effective than screaming in fury at technology for existing. It’s going to win. You can’t smash it up, and the people who own it have the bigger guns.

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The Politics Of Fear: Getting The Majority To Feel Oppressed

by on Sep.01, 2012, under The Rest

There are some things that are pointless, no matter how strong the urge may be to do them. And trying to observe the discrepancy of discourse between the American right and left is right up there on the Shouting Down A Well chart. But the reaction to the Clint Eastwood appearance of two nights ago means I’m helpless but to just pointlessly post words.

From an objective perspective (or the closest I can get to one as an outside observer with politics that match neither of the competing parties), what was shown was a clearly uncomfortable Eastwood stumbling through a poorly rehearsed sketch in which he pretended to interview Obama, while talking to an empty chair. It was poorly delivered, frequently stumbling, and full of really quite concerning factual errors. There were a couple of well-delivered moments where he pretended Obama was interrupting him, but unfortunately after the very confused and hesitant start it was hard to recognise these from his genuine mistakes. I didn’t find it funny, and I certainly don’t think it had many jokes in it. It was, instead, designed to be scathing and derogatory, and to a baying crowd of Republicans who believe or pretend to believe that Obama is an anti-Christ this is exactly what they wanted to hear. And of course – of course attendees of the Republican Convention are going to be extreme enthusiasts, passionate in their support for their party, and accordingly passionate in their disgust for the other party.

But what makes me abandon an attempt at objectivity, and want to chew my face off from the inside out is the way in which Republicans – as is now always the case – immediately begin the campaign of non-information afterward. This relies on believing, or pretending to believe, a few things:

1) They are in the minority, and are being oppressed.
2) The media is against them, and they are at a significant disadvantage because of this.
3) Any who disagree with them are “politically correct”, “liberal”, and various forms of inverted bigots.

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Goodies And Baddies – Why Republicans Should Embrace The Dark Side

by on Sep.01, 2012, under The Rest

I’ve been joking on Twitter today about certain people being baddies, and how much easier life would be if we’d all accept this and commit to our roles. It’s obviously a massively over-simplified and silly idea, but it’s the parodic distillation of the thought I keep having every time the news reports that Russia and China have vetoed yet another UN attempt at intervention in Syria. That it’s been left up to the likes of William Hague to have to call out these governments, while the news outlets report it with their delusion of “balance”, is a pretty worrying sign. I really do think it would be a lot better if the media just acknowledged what we all know is true – that the Russian and Chinese governments are baddies, and the Syrian regime are baddies, so of course they’re going to stick together.

The obvious flaw with such a comment is that it implies that the other side therefore must be “goodies”. If only it were true, and it’s obviously not the case. But I think we can say quite unequivocally that, for instance, Putin’s regime are proper baddies, and we need to stop pretending otherwise. Surely we’d get a lot further a lot more quickly.

What’s perhaps more peculiar is the Republican party in the United States. The USA is a deeply, deeply weird nation, over 300,000,000 people somehow almost exactly split down the middle in terms of which of two sides they’re on. There are two parties who offer presidential candidates with a realistic chance of winning, and you have to pick one of them. There’s no nuance, there’s no middle ground. You either pick the man in the centre, or the man on the extreme right. (Even more so than in the UK, there’s no notion of a left wing option, with one side calling the other side “socialist” as an insult while the other side desperately protests that they’re not.) And with this bisecting of the country and its politics, it’s become deeply tribal. Not North/South as it once was, but Outside/Inside. When there’s one side or the other to pick, and nothing offering a position that sits between the two, both sides are inevitably going to become caricatures of themselves, and part of that has been to quite defiantly choose between being a Goodie or a Baddie.

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Polygon And The Documentary That Cured Cancer

by on Aug.23, 2012, under The Rest

If you don’t care about videogame websites, move along at this point. I don’t want to bore you. Really, this is mostly aimed at the Polygon team, in the hope that they’ll understand why their trailer for their documentary is not being well received. The entire team seems utterly bemused as to why not just readers but the wider games press is having such an adverse reaction to the two trailers that have been put out so far, and I want to explain it. Here are the two trailers:

[Wordpress broke everything]

Let me stress something from the start. I’ve met a few of the Polygon team, and they seemed lovely. I also happen to be a big fan of the McElroy brothers’ podcast, and as such have a lot of respect for how funny they are. I have nothing personal against any of them, and I want Polygon to be a site that produces fantastic content that I want to read, and becomes a huge success because of it. I’m writing this because I feel like reality has broken down a little, and I want to put the bricks back in place.

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The Daily Mail, And How An NHS Death Means… Racism Is Fine?

by on Jul.28, 2012, under The Rest

UPDATE UPDATE: The Mail has pulled the article entirely now. The link to it now just reaches an error page. But you can read the article in full via the links a few lines below, and via FreezePage here.

UPDATE: That was quick. About five minutes after I posted, the Mail’s story was ninja edited, without acknowledgement, to remove the most outrageously racist lines. Where once it read:

“This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.

Almost, if not every, shot in the next sequence included an ethnic minority performer. The BBC presenter Hazel Irvine gushed about the importance of grime music (a form of awful electronic music popular among black youths) to east London. This multicultural equality agenda was so staged it was painful to watch.”

It now reads:

“This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but such set-ups are simply not the ‘norm’ in any part of the country. So why was it portrayed like this and given such prominence? If it was intended to be something that we can celebrate, that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together, then it deserves praise.

But what will be disturbing to many people is top-down political manipulation – whether consciously or unthinkingly – at a major sporting event.”

It’s the most extraordinary change to the text, completely reversing the meaning the author originally intended, and completely incongruous to the paragraphs either side of it, which still endorse Aidan Burley’s “leftie multicultural crap” tweet.

You can see scans of the original article, before these changes were made, here: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Original: I am very aware that getting cross with Daily Mail articles is like shouting about how the sun can be hot. However, my motivation is not to cry, “How dare they!”, but instead to say, “Please understand that they do.” I still meet many people who do not understand how the Daily Mail is not just another tabloid, not just as bad as the rest of them, but instead something far more despicable and dangerous. It’s one of the most popular papers in Britain, and when we say, “Just ignore it – they’re just trying to get hits,” I shudder. We do not ignore evil – we challenge it and get angry about it. We make more people aware. Some people reading won’t have realised. And others can maybe point someone this way when they ask what they’re getting so worked up about.

The particular piece that’s riled me this evening is elegantly titled, “The NHS did not deserve to be so disgracefully glorified in this bonanza of left-wing propaganda“. That the Mail would write a piece arguing that the NHS is a bad thing, and should have had no part in the Olympic opening ceremony, is not a surprise. They’re a vicious and spiteful paper, and their agenda against the poor and needy is over a hundred years old. The NHS is the antithesis of everything they stand for, a socialist blight on our nation they’d rather do without. And while there are a thousand reasons to get cross about that, it’s not the issue with this piece. The issue is what’s smuggled in there.

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Er, I Don’t Know, Some Introspective Blather About My Job

by on May.12, 2012, under The Rest

I’m feeling biographical. Perhaps that happens to you in your mid-30s, I’m not sure. This is indulgence. Indulgence is acceptable. I’m conscious of a couple of things. Firstly, that I want to process being creative, and secondly that I want to ponder what it is I’m actually doing. And it seems to be the case that I do my best processing in the backend of a WordPress site. I mean, this is essentially the ‘room’ I go to every day to do my work, and my work is, I would argue, to be creative.

I think people reach games journalism (and let’s ignore the semantics of ‘journalism’ – I’m aware that I’m not in warzones or uncovering governmental corruption, but “games writing” suggests I’m writing the games themselves, and I’ve yet to find a better term) from a lot of different paths, with a lot of different motivations. For some, it’s because it’s their absolute dream, to be writing about video games. For others, it’s because they love playing video games, and want to find a way to make money from that. (I always advise those latter people away from the career, because, well, I’m an idealist. I used to because it meant they stood no chance of getting anywhere, but I think that notion is somewhat outdated now, and instead I just find the approach personally offensive.) For me, it’s because I want to write. Why I want to write is a much more convoluted question. But why I write about video games is simple: I think video games are incredible, and they provide me an opportunity to write. (I imagine to some that’s equally offensive.)

I’m passionate about games. I’ve loved them since we had our first Atari 2600, and as much as I revel in great film, literature and television, gaming is the medium that most connects with me. It’s the medium that lets not only the story engage with me, but me engage with that story, and through interaction I receive a connection that’s unique. And because I am wired the way I’m wired, my desire is to express that which I experience, and I am blessed and fortunate enough to be able to do that in the job I have.

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And Unpaid “Internships” Aren’t Okay Either

by on Feb.06, 2012, under Rants

Oh my goodness, I’m boiling over with rage. Yet another gaming site is trying to deceive young writers into believing their work is worthless, and the only way they can get anywhere in this job is to work for free. (You can read my previous rant here.)

Pocket Gamer, who until now I’d always naively thought of as quite a cheery site, are offering three month unpaid “internships”. Which means they take their writing, publish it on their advertising-emblazoned site, and then keep all the money that article generates for themselves. The author gets the magical treat of “experience”, and we’re all to thank the publisher for their charitable efforts.

What’s made me quite so angry this evening is the realisation that I would FAR prefer the editors/publishers of such a site just admit that they’re taking advantage of a culture where young writers are easy to screw over. But instead we get told these ridiculous stories about how it’s for the exploited writer’s own benefit, that it’s to help them, and most of all, that they’d never get paid work without doing unpaid first.

That is a LIE. An absolute lie. And it’s a ridiculous one at that. Never mind that most the writers I know never did any prolonged stints of unpaid work. Never mind that I wrote for PC Gamer for a decade, and saw lots of young writers with no paid experience being given a chance with paid-for work in the magazine. Never mind that RPS hired the extraordinary Adam Smith despite his never having had any published games journalism experience at all. Nor that we’re not requiring it for our next hire. But because the lie is usually backed up with the stupidest logic imaginable. “I did unpaid work to get into this industry, and I’d never have got here if I hadn’t.”

Presumably people willing to make this argument are also aware of every other of the billions upon trillions of alternate paths their lives could have taken should they have turned left at the lights rather than right, or left the house on time rather than five minutes late. The capacity to contain the eventualities of every possible version of their existence must be the thing that exhausts them enough to be of a frame of mind where they believe published writers shouldn’t get paid. It’s such a monumentally lazy thing to say, to believe that because they did one thing – that they were personally exploited – that no other pathway was open to them. It’s illogical nonsense, and that it’s people’s best defense for the morally bankrupt practice is a touch problematic.

It’s not ambiguous. If your website makes money, and you publish someone’s article, you pay them for it. Otherwise you’re making money from their work and giving them nothing, which is exploitation.

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An Imaginary Cure For An Imaginary Ailment: Text Neck

by on Jan.19, 2012, under The Rest

Magic cream!

I recently received the most extraordinary press release, ostensibly sent to me because I’m a games journalist, about the dangers of “Text Neck”. Often when you see something like this it’s a joke, a spoof that eventually links to a game. But this one was entirely serious.

This new phenomenon is caused by “frequent texting or looking down at your mobile device for extended periods of time”. And guess who says this? Why, it’s chiropractors. According to these bastions of medical science, “it is on the rise and is quickly becoming a global epidemic.” That’s honestly their quote.

Ignoring the notion that perhaps people’s propensity to read books for the last few thousand years might have generated similar symptoms, these not-doctors inform us that such activity can cause check soreness and headaches, and even arthritis! If left untreated. Of course. And how?

Why, you could use Topical BioMedics’ Topicin Pain Relief and Healing Cream! And what is Topicin, that this press release fails to mention? It’s a homeopathic remedy, and thus a tube of placebo.

On their website, which hilariously has blocked right-clicking, they state:

“Topricin’s patented homeopathic biomedicine technology is proven effective for arthritis and joint injuries, carpal tunnel and other neuropathies, lower back pain and muscle cramps, night leg cramps and restless leg syndrome.”

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Why People Are Still Failing To Accept The True Horror Of SOPA/PIPA

by on Jan.18, 2012, under Rum Doings, The Rest

I’ve been bleating away on Twitter all day, probably to the horror of anyone who doesn’t follow me via RPS or Rum Doings, and making my opinions on SOPA and PIPA well known. Rather than repeating the definitions of these Acts, and why they’re the most dangerous infringements of free speech and a free internet imaginable, you can learn all that from here.

But there’s something I want to comment on specifically, and it doesn’t fit in a tweet. I’ve tried. Lots of times.

This line from Kotaku’s missive on why they haven’t blacked out their site as part of today’s international protest sums part of it up for me:

“It’s no wonder that an outfit like the League of Legends creators at Riot Games read that and worry that a livestream of a great LoL match could be found in violation of SOPA the moment someone starts singing the lyrics of a copyrighted song on it. Is that really the kind of stifling of the Internet the writers of SOPA and PIPA are seeking?”

Yes! Yes it is. That is precisely the internet they’re seeking. It seems so outlandish that so many news outlets are phrasing it as if it’s a reductio ad absurdum, throwing their hands up and saying, “This bill’s so crazy it would lead to these wacky outcomes!” as if such a result is a parody of the poorly written nature of the bill.

This is to so frighteningly miss the point as to be all but helping those crafting such bills. By reducing the very intent of terrified industries – they who built their empires around plastic squares and discs that have since been rendered pointless – to a perceived exaggeration, something apparently so laughable as to parody the bills’ intentions, is to ignore the reality of what we are facing.

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Imagine Publishing’s “Competition” To Get Unpaid Writers

by on Jan.13, 2012, under The Rest

It couldn’t be more timely. Two days after I kicked off a bit of a debate about whether it’s appropriate for writers to work for free for professional publications (no, it’s not), Imagine Publishing’s website NowGamer has launched a “competition” to find someone who’ll write for their site, on a regular basis, for no money.

Dressed up as an act of altruistic generosity, the site suggests that this will be an amazing opportunity for a writer to receive exposure on their site. What they don’t point out is how it’s a great way for the site to add regular content without paying for it. Content that will generate them ad revenue, and go toward paying the salaries of their staff. Servants get paid. This is a position below servant.

The title reads:

Love games? Got a voice? Then you need a blog on NowGamer!

No you don’t. You really don’t need a blog on a site that is looking to take advantage of someone’s desire for exposure at the expense of their dignity. This refrain that it’s “good for your CV” is such a wretched thing to be said. SO IS A PAID JOB.

There’s no need for me to repeat all the reasons why writing for free is wrong, both for you, and for everyone else in the industry – they’re in the post below.

It’s shocking to me to see a publication being so brazen about what I can only see as exploitation. Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that they’re doing good in giving someone “exposure”, and have so far avoided thinking about how they would never allow themselves to receive the same treatment.

And what they call a “blog” is in fact filed on the site as a “column”. The column is generally the best paid part of any site, since it’s something given to a specific writer that the site or magazine specifically wants to be writing regularly for them. It’s not a feature any staff writer can fill. It’s something peculiar to that writer, with their name at the top, and thus generally they are paid for at a premium. The cheek of wanting someone to fill such a role for them, without paying, is astonishing.

They sell this by saying,

“Having a published blog is a great way of getting a start in videogames journalism, or you may just have a lot to say about games and want a platform for your opinion. Either way, you’ll be writing alongside some of the industry’s best games journalists.”

Yes, and they’ll be being paid. You won’t. What form of “alongside” is that, exactly?

As the excellent Steve Hogarty pointed out on Twitter, if you want a blog you can get one. You don’t need it to be generating money to pay these guys’ wages.

Imagine – this is shameful. Please stop this immediately. If you cannot afford to pay for a new columnist on your site, I suggest not advertising for one. Especially in a way designed to trick young writers into devaluing their (and thus everyone else’s) words and work to zero.

Edit: Astonishingly, one of the NowGamer writers explains that doing this is “not work”, because it’s a blog. That’s why it’s free. Good grief.

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