Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Video Gaming

In my last post I quoted some passages from Gaston Bachelard's book The Poetics of Space. This work is one of my favorites because Bachelard does the philosophical task he sets out to do in a way I hadn't encountered before. That "task" is something called "phenomenology," the philosophical analysis of experience as it is lived. The more I grow intellectually, the more I realize that phenomenology is my calling. I don't really care about analyzing things "as they are in themselves;" I care more about the world as it presents itself to me, about discovering the wrinkles and nuances of that world that are often too subtle for me to consciously notice. Bachelard does this brilliantly, but so do psychologist James Hillman, whom I've quoted here before, and Martin Heidegger, whom I haven't. They are role models for me--they show me sides of the world I hadn't seen before, letting me look at ordinary things with new eyes.
So I've decided to follow in their footsteps. Just as my senior philosophy thesis did a phenomenology of dreaming, I want to look deeply into the experience of not just the "weird" parts of our existence, but the seemingly ordinary parts. What will follow in this series of posts are phenomenological inquiries into the way we experience the extremely mundane. For instance, the first post I want to write about is on video games, and I am not opposed to writing on the deeper aspects of things like Netflix, fast food, or even autocorrect. By doing this, I hope to let the reader see the world with new eyes; just as Bachelard lets us see the lowly house as a shell, a nest, or a blanket, I want to make the mundane mystical, the ordinary profound
My Methodology
But before this first post, I want to talk a little about the methods I'll be using to interpret these everyday things. Know first that I'm open to using any source at all as "evidence" for the nature of an experience. As far as I can tell, as long as the writer is not telling a deliberate lie (and even most fiction doesn't count as that kind of lie), he or she said it for some reason, and though that reason might be false, those justifications still make up part of the writer's experience. And experience is what I'm all about here. 
Second, know that I won't always use academically rigorous language. I will sometimes (perhaps often) use poetic or apparently contradictory phrases to get across the nature of the experience in question, and I do this deliberately. The reason for this is that poetic language evokes specific aspects of the experience I'm looking at that would be difficult to get across in a propositional way. Poetry, imagery, and metaphor help me show you what I see in the everyday, as opposed to just awkwardly describing it. Nevertheless, I will try to keep it in an overall academic context
Third, know that "truth" as it is traditionally conceived is not my concern here. I don't care whether my picture of things is true, unless we mean something atypical by the word. Instead, I am using my language to "open up" different parts of the world to people. For instance, is an equivalence of the dice in a tabletop role-playing game with divination true? Of course not--but neither is it false. Instead, it lets me see the RPG in a new way, allowing me to appreciate it that much more.
A Phenomenology of Video Gaming
The first real video game I played was Banjo-Kazooie, pictured above. While it holds a special place in my memory for that reason, I'd like to use it as an tool to illustrate to you the different facets of the video-gaming experience. For instance, when I first pick up the controller to play as the bear Banjo, I have an experience that would be really weird for someone who hadn't ever picked up a controller. If I move the joystick up, he moves forward. If I move it to either side, he moves sideways. If I move it down, he moves backwards. I suddenly get the impression of being a puppet-master: I am in control of a being who lacks his own independent will. As far as I can tell, I am Banjo's will, and the figure I see before me is nothing more than a vehicle I am driving
This causes me to reflect--just as gamers have called their in-game characters "avatars" (as in the Hindu notion of incarnation), the Banjo I see on the screen is effectively my body. In the same way I will to move my hand and my hand moves, I push the control stick and Banjo moves. But this causes further thought--if I as my physical self am distinct from Banjo, am "I" distinct from my body? As a religious person, I'd like to think so. But still, the experience of playing Banjo-Kazooie makes me very aware of embodiment, at least until even video game avatars became too "normal" to notice
This means that I can lose awareness of the distinction between my body and the in-game avatar, at least to an extent. I've gotten lost in the worlds Banjo-Kazooie, Skyrim, or Mass Effect more times than I can count, and so I can testify to the fact that the real, physical world can become so "transparent" that I stop noticing it altogether. But is there an analogue for the mind-body relationship? Well, most of us don't notice a distinction between my "self" as a will and my body as what is being controlled, so there's that. However, this comparison only becomes useful when I can show that--just as I can find the gaming controls unwieldy--some experience a disconnect between their inner, "body-independent" selves and their physical selves. 
As someone with Asperger's Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism, I think that the subjective experience of autistics is like this in many ways. One person with autism whom I talked to said that having autism was like "trying to drive a car with a manual transmission" (i.e. as opposed to the automatic transmission that "neurotypicals" drive), and another autistic friend said that people with autism have a sense of being both the car and the driver, while most see themselves only as the car. So I suggest that we conceive of autism as a stark awareness of the distinction between mind and body. This can explain the tendency in autism for a) problems with thinking in terms of an embodied self and other (mind-blindness), b) difficulties with social interaction that follow from this, and c) clumsiness and problems with certain physical sensations. Even perseverating or repetitive behaviors in autism could be explained by the religious conception of the spirit's still-intact familiarity with eternity's timeless (changeless) nature, and the well-known literalism could be explained by a familiarity with the un-hidden nature of things in the spiritual world as described by Emanuel Swedenborg.
Thus, playing video games--especially video games with unwieldy controls--gives a good idea of what it's like to live with autism. This comparison also suggests that, just as you can learn to drive well with a manual transmission or to play a video game adeptly, an autistic can learn how to socially interact just as well as a the average person, though it may take a much longer time. Nevertheless, an autistic person at the end of that path is in many ways much better off than a neurotypical with the same social skills, for he is distinctly aware of how social interaction works, where a "normal" person might not even give it a second thought.
Given that video games offer something like embodiment, this opens up the field to escapism of all kinds. Unlike my actual life, in video games I can venture across Tamriel (The Elder Scrolls), save the galaxy from Reapers (Mass Effect), or live as the opposite sex (The Sims, for instance). Part of video gaming's appeal is then to live as I can't in my suburban, 9-to-5 life, to be another person in another place and time. This has considerable precedent in books, but there is a difference between the two kinds of media. Books leave almost everything up to my imagination, whereas video games leave almost nothing. This is perhaps a danger of video games--they limit the imagination by "doing all the work" of embodying the world and its characters. This issue is symptomatic of a problem with our culture in general: as rabid literalists, we can only conceive of things that we can physically see and hear, and we scoff at anything we have to imagine. Instead of letting the imagination assume its traditional place as intermediary between the visible and the invisible, our culture's media brutishly tries to force things from the one to the other, giving up all sense of subtlety, nuance, or (often) creativity.
Yet there are ways in which video games can foster the imagination. Take the 2010 interactive thriller Heavy Rain, for instance:

Heavy Rain tells the story of a father whose son has been kidnapped, and who must undergo a series of "trials" to save him. The game is very "gritty," and as such I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. Nevertheless, it has many virtues, and it shows them in a way that perhaps no piece of art or media had done before. Specifically, the triumph of Heavy Rain is that it allows the reader to simulate the experience of intense trauma and the subsequent intense love. But the game does this in a way that no film or novel could, for it makes creative use of the uniquely interactive nature of video gaming. First of all, the game brings in a tactile element to its immersion of the player. Specifically, the player must do x and y with controller (with the sticks, the buttons, and actual physical "jerks" for the controller's accelerometer) to perform a physical action. These actions can be physically difficult to pull off, and it often takes nimble fingers to succeed. And yet they are different from what the actual action would involve. For example, the most infamous scene from Heavy Rain involves the father character having to willingly cut off a section of one of his fingers. Though this would be a traumatic experience, it's difficult to see how one could incarnate it in the game with the traditional literalism of video games. In fact, they don't go the literal route, but use symbolic analogues of what I would have to do in that situation. For example, before I can do anything about my finger, I must very slowly move the analog stick up and down. This symbolizes a calming breath, and if I am too quick with the stick, I lose my nerve and have to start over. 
These kinds of symbolic analogues are both like and unlike what the literal act would involve. In a way, carefully pushing the control stick up and down is nothing like how I breathe; and yet in another way it is very similar to it. The resemblance here is non-literal or--as James Hillman puts it--imaginal. The symbolic action I do with the controller acts as a mediator between the far-off reality of trauma and the comfort of my living room. It doesn't mindlessly collapse one into the other, but instead shows it to me in a way that best fits the electronic medium's limitations. To put it another way, Heavy Rain's control scheme shows the player an image of trauma's reality, one that isn't literally faithful to the experience, yet presents its essentials. In that way it's rather like an impressionist painting--just as Monet gave up realism to show the viewer an atypical perspective of the painting's scene, Heavy Rain gives a deliberately unrealistic way of living that situation, yet one that captures "what it's like" more than a literal or realistic control scheme (with a Wiimote, for instance) could. This is what brings out the imagination: it lets me see trauma askew, giving me a perspective I wouldn't have ordinarily used. In that way, you could say that Heavy Rain itself does phenomenology, at least in the way I'm defining it here
There is another way Heavy Rain fosters the imagination, one it shares with narrative-focused games like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead.

In these games, it is either impossible or impractical to "undo" a choice you've made that impacts the narrative. In the original Mass Effect, I have to choose whether to save Ashley or Kaiden, and at one point in The Walking Dead I must decide whether to let a traitorous character fall to his death or endanger myself and others by saving him. These choices are a bit contrived, to put it bluntly. And yet I don't think they were designed not to be. Though cliché and hackneyed, these decisions use the admittedly limited framework of the game's branching storyline to give the player a sense of agency and consequence. This sense of agency is the entire purpose behind these branching plotlines, and the actual choices involved only serve to bring that agency about. This sense of consequence or "weight" is something no other artistic medium could reproduce; the closest you come is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, and with that it is far too easy to turn back the page. What's more, these seemingly contrived choices are also food for the imagination--they let the player experience something like moral responsibility without going into the endless nuances of that responsibility (think of a hardcore simulation game like SimCity 4 as a counter-example). The game's story is a frame for the sense of urgency and agency that comes with its choices, and that's what we ultimately remember about it. The Walking Dead is less about zombies than it is about the feeling of being responsible for my choices, and this feeling too comes through a non-literal intermediary, or rather, it comes through the bridge of the imagination and its suspension of disbelief. 
There is a commonality between the tactile and morally weighty elements discussed above: they're both ways of revealing a human situation to the player in a way that another form of media couldn't facilitate. In light of this, let's re-interpret my idea that video games try to overcome their limitations by collapsing the imaginal gap between the game's setting and my living room. Instead, let's say that many video games are conscious of their limitations, and that they push against those limitations in full awareness that they will never recreate real life. A perfect simulation of real life would be as boring as real life often is. Heck, a perfect simulation of any reality would get boring after a while; that's just how reality is. Video games use the limitations of graphics, processing power, and control schemes as kind of foil to "show forth" or "reveal" different parts of reality. The freedom of exploration Fallout offers me is nothing remarkable; if I wanted to, I could get up from my couch, walk out the door, and wander off in one direction for infinitely longer than I could in the Capital Wasteland.

There are no "invisible walls" in the real world. But truly ulimited freedom isn't the point of Fallout or The Elder Scrolls--they are designed with the limitations of the console in mind, and within that context the freedom I already enjoy becomes remarkable.

The Sims franchise is a very special example of this kind of phenomenon. If The Walking Dead gives me a clear vision of moral responsibility by placing it in contrast with the storyline's limitations, and if The Elder Scrolls does the same thing with the juxtaposition of freedom and the console's processing power, The Sims is audacious enough to show me how wonderful, fascinating, and ultimately entertaining everyday life can be. Of course The Sims doesn't recreate life perfectly. If it did I would just live my life instead, but within the context of the game's and the computer's limitations, it does a pretty good job. It changes a bit here and there to make "real life" more interesting, but in the end I play the game not to accrue points or fulfill need bars, but to live life. The progressive (and occasionally regressive...) improvements in The Sims' realism give me a kind of excitement that my computer is so quickly approaching my life as it is. And what's even more remarkable, one of the most exciting things to do is to recreate either myself or my house in the game's engine. I can obviously take a look at my face in a mirror or look at my house on Google Earth whenever I want, but it's the novelty of a new (slightly pixelated) perspective that gets me going. I create myself because I think that computers shouldn't be able to facilitate that creation, and when they manage it, I stand in awe of my own features. In this way, The Sims "does phenomenology" more than any other game, since its very purpose is to re-interpret and re-contextuaize the mundane realities of modern suburbia. The same fascination that fills me with glee when reading a Bachelard or a Hillman exists in The Sims when I see my Sim-self reading a book, going to work, or striking up a gibberish conversation.

And yet there is also an escapist element to The Sims. I play the game not only to live everyday life, but to live the parts of everyday life that are outside my purview. In The Sims, I can be a woman or a criminal, just as I can be "hot-headed" or a "never-nude." This is similar to the escapism of games like Grand Theft Auto, but the fascinating thing is how amazingly continuous those escapist elements are to those that are mundane for me. The Sims is comprehensive enough that what is unfamiliar to me might be boringly normal to another, and vice versa. What comes out of The Sims, then, is a sense of cosmic scope or objectivity. I am just another Sim, subject to a race, an age, a gender, and a certain number of "traits," just like any other Sim. I could just as easily have been her as I could have been me! And yet do these ramblings make sense? They do in the context of the Sims. This game intimates to me of a "man upstairs" controlling the scene, giving me impulses to do this and that in exactly the way he does to another. In this way I see myself as very small, and yet I find myself aware of at least the possibility of something "bigger" than me.
There are other reasons to play video games, however. Apart from the realism or pseudo-realism of the games discussed above, there are also casual games like my favorites: Threes or Fallout Shelter.

What draws me to a game like Threes is the satisfaction of getting a "high score," either in a micro- or macro-context. This taps into my desire for achievement and collection, to surpass my previous abilities by "catching them all." There is inherent in this desire a kind of competition with myself--I remember my previous achievement, and I want to surpass it. These are thus at least partially a way to prove to myself that I am skilled. Of course, the skills I use in Threes aren't at all applicable to everyday life, but instead create a kind of "local context." I compete with myself and others in the parameters of the game itself. Thus we come to the idea that competition is something desirable in itself, at least to certain people. Competition with myself (that is, with my previous high score) gives me a "jolt" of freedom from normality when I surpass that score. That jolt is very short-lived, though. Games like Threes are compelling because of that jolt or thrill, and the increasing rarity of that thrill as I progress gets me to chase after it all the more. 
As has been pointed out ad nauseam, this is remiscent of how addiction works. There is thus a danger--demonstrated by repeated experience--that these games can suck you in and captivate your attention to extreme levels. What's good about Threes in contrast with Candy Crush Saga, for instance, is that it requests only a small initial payment, one that you can even avoid by watching ads. With less ethical games, though, an unstable or naive player can easily lose themselves and parts of their income that would be better spent elsewhere. But this is common knowledge. However, another appeal of games like Threes or Fallout Shelter is the possibility of multitasking, either while waiting in line or listening to something like a podcast or an audiobook. These games fill a void in our widely stretched attention span, which has become used to doing more than one thing at once. That is both a good thing and a bad thing, but that's a discussion for another post.
What other kinds of games are left to analyze? Gameplay-oriented RPGs give the aforementioned "jolt" through a) defeating enemies, b) collecting items, and c)" leveling up" in all its various forms. Platformers like Banjo-Kazooie (mentioned the beginning) are appealing as yet another variety of the "skill-test" motif. Regardless of how difficult the maneuver actually is, it gives me the jolt of satisfaction when I successfully jump from one platform to another. This is made more meaningful by its contrast with the ever-present possibility of falling, possibly to my avatar's death. Strategy games like Civilization or Starcraft are also somewhat built on the "jolt," but with the reservation that my gratification is very delayed. To succeed at Starcraft on a "hard" difficulty level takes skill, one that gives a sense of accomplishment when I succeed. That accomplishment is limited to the game itself, but it is so satisfying that it perhaps "grew into" the vicarious experience of it as a spectator sport in countries like South Korea. Competitive first person shooters are very similar to strategy games in that respect, only it is less intellectual and more based on quick reflexes. The "jolt" comes in the thrill of the fight, when I manipulate the controls quickly enough to defeat my opponent, whether it be AI or a flesh-and-blood opponent. I admit that I have no experience with such competitiveness myself, but I have experienced it secondhand through the endless hours I spent with my brother in front of the television while he beat online enemies on Halo 3.
To sum up this analysis, let me talk about the ubiquitous importance of limitation in video games. Obvious in casual games and only deceptively present (but still very much there) in games like Fallout or Heavy Rain, limitation is the video game's bread and butter. While a novel can show us fantastic realities beyond description, the limitations intrinsic to video game consoles or game engines define gaming as a medium. A game is appealing to the extent that it successfully presents itself in relation to those limits. An overly realistic game is less appealing than one which presents its subject in a way that fits its console well. A game defined entirely by limitation (perhaps The Stanley Parable, in a way reminiscent of René Magritte's paintings) might be one of the best games of all.
What does this say about human nature? Our constant search for bigger and better can only exist with limitation as a foil for that quest. If I had everything I ever wanted, I would very quickly get bored. But how often do we forget this! Our movies and our gadgets seek to surpass each other ad infinitum with better CGI, thinner bodies, more ease of use. But what happens if and when we go entirely past the limitations of physicality? Our materialistic culture would lose all its meaning, and many wouldn't know what to put their hopes in. Our culture of "bigger is better" forgets that the big only appears big in relation to the small, and unknowingly tries to get rid of the small in its quest for size. And of course this is its suicide. To save the culture we have invested in technology, let us return to the small, to the limited. This is the reason why "retro" games like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery give me lots of hope, because it kindles our desire for what is past and "obsolete." We need nostalgia just as much as we have anxious anticipation. 

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