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Arca is a pop star whose music and artworks deal with post-humanism and identity. An avid gamer with a voracious following on her Discord @mutants1000000, her music has appeared in Red Dead Redemption 2 and on Analogue’s Mega Sg console.
In this interview, Highsnobiety's Editor-in-Chief Thom Bettridge and Arca discuss the overarching concept of "meta" in their artistic and virtual life, dispelling the prejudice that exists around gaming culture, and the extent to which play is an essential facet of the human experience.
Thom Bettridge: What would you say is one of your essential games?
Arca: I've played a lot of Overwatch.
Who's your character? My main is D.va.
Well, I have more than one, but I really like Sombra. I guess I relate to her in a lot of ways. Most people don't really want you to pick her. I’ve always liked characters whose mechanics were complicated and not necessarily even part of the meta.
[Editor’s note: In the world of gaming, meta is used in two ways. Meta can be used as an acronym for “most effective tactics available,” and calling something “meta” means that it's an effective way to achieve the goal of the game, whether it's to beat other players or beat the game itself.]
The meta as a concept is something that is not foreign to me as an artist operating within an industry. There are certain teams that tend to win [on an] industry and communications level. Certain kinds of information tend to cause some kind of resonance in audiences at any given point in time. That's not too different from studying a meta. [Sombra] has never been necessary, really, for any team in any meta. She's always been kind of a quirky choice.
What’s the game you’ve played the most in your life?
In terms of hours logged, it’s Guild Wars I. I logged at least 3,000 hours on my game.
I loved [playing as] Mesmers. I think Mesmers in Guild Wars I and [I] have a lot in common.
Yeah, because their mechanic is founded on misdirection, or having to guess what your opponent might be thinking in order to maximize your capacity to strategize the other team's offense or defense. They’re really weirdly unsung, because they will cause status ailments that wouldn't really do the highest DPS [damage per second], but without them you couldn't really get through protective spirit; one of the enchantments that would prevent spike. There is something really interesting about this kind of character class.
What do you feel like you learn from the time you spend gaming? Is it separate from your “productive” life, or part of it?
I would suggest that you loosen the lens on whether something is productive or not, because you're going to still be beholden to accomplishment or achievement, regardless of the fact that you might say, "You can learn productive things within gaming." For me, the problem is the word “productive,” because it purports to the gears of one's behavior being attuned to some ultimate goal of wanting to feel valuable, of attracting a mate, of feeding a family.
That's a very good point.
I liked on some level selfishly playing a Monk or a White Mage in games. It makes me feel important, like my role is needed, I guess, which is different from a Mesmer or someone like that who's nonessential. You don't see enemies' health bars; instead, you're mostly looking at your teammates' health bars. That's always been really interesting for me, why I was drawn to that. I want to nurse people.
I feel like in games, with younger players, they just want to shoot people. Whereas there's something more emotionally mature about healing in a game.
I would say you're right for the most part. But it can be weirdly self-absorbed, too, to be like, "I'm the most generous. I am the most needed." In a way, it kind of echoes — no pun intended — the myth of Narcissus falling in love with his reflection. That's the thing we hear about the most, but very rarely do we ever hear about what happens just before we find the lake that he stares into. There is a nymph called Echo. If you were to not see narcissism as something undesirable as a whole, if you were able to see that there is such a thing as a healthy sense of narcissism, there's a healthy sense of ego, if you will. It's not so black and white.
This relates to gaming, because I was thinking we shouldn't conflate or assume that the healer class is more advanced, because even that projection is dehumanizing, in a sense.
There's an assumption that a person who spends a lot of time gaming is maybe somehow disappointed by the "real world."
Well, who isn't disappointed? Who isn't disappointed by the real world? Games and music and art and sports, those are the kinds of things that we do for their own sake without expecting any kind of result. It's like if you're playing a game and you're having fun, that's it. Nothing needs to come from it other than that moment where you lose sense of your circumstance. And there is nothing that you'd rather be doing or nothing that you could be doing any better. There is just that moment of flow. It's not that different from making a beautiful meal or making a beautiful song.
What are you playing these days?
I’ve been playing Red Dead, which I have some music in. When I'm away, I play Smash Brothers.
And you made music for [Red Dead Redemption 2]?
I was involved in a minor way, admittedly, just because the game has so much music. I made a lot of music and sent a lot of music over. Also, we worked and treated some of the songs that they sent over that they had already recorded. It was Woody Jackson who recorded and arranged performances by different musicians, and then I got sent those, and I would reassess them and send it back.
What, in your mind, is the relationship between games and music? How do those states of mind relate to each other, for you?
I think in the moment, when you're really in it, you forget yourself — or maybe remember yourself. Like animals; they make music and they play games with one another. Games are anything that two sentient creatures do — they entangle consciousness, develop some kind of rule set, and maybe the rule set is imposed by physics or responding to the weight. Just kicking a can down the street with a friend is a game. There is a formal system, and then creativity, and exploration of the unconscious, and ideally a game can produce surprises, and surprise you. Then you have games that have a reward system. Then you have games that have punishment systems. There's as many kinds of games as there are individuals.
By sheer virtue of being able to develop a game of peek-a-boo with a stranger that you could be flirting with... if you look at someone, and they look at you back, that's a game. Any kind of prejudice that people have to video games to see them as an activity that's not valid or worthwhile has a lot more to do with their own hangups about playfulness than it has anything to do with the capacity for games to express or even redeem some of our impulses. I remember there was this supercut of The Matrix dialogue, and at one point somebody said, "to deny your impulses is to deny that which makes you human," or something like that. I think the impulse of play is natural in us. All you have to do is look at babies, or look at three people at a nursing home.