Monday, March 25, 2013


Pressure and criticism is building against video games, saying they are violent, sexual and unsocial.  I take this to be a deflection of what ought to be aimed at the reality of things like “extreme fighting,” a big deal in Great Falls where many people don’t only admire it, but will pay major bucks to watch two people (not necessarily male) pound each other.  That’s not what I want to talk about here.  Instead I’m reacting to a video by Glen Schofield, a creator of hugely successful video games, explaining in TED style how he and his team create the games.  Much of it is about the art work of strange environments, like space, war, or foreign places.  So this talk is the “meta” level of human experience and the principles that inform arts of all kinds.

At the same time I just finished the May, 2013, issue of “Analog: Science Fiction and Fact.”  The juxtaposition triggered the thought that what used to be sci fi, is now often translated into vid games, a mix of reality and virtual construction, and that before there was sci fi there were “religious” stories.  We reach for what is beyond human.

Part of this is the work of understanding survival in the obvious three step process:  1) intake of sensations, 2) filtering and structuring, and 3) producing decisions about what to do.  But there is always more beyond what we know, that bushwhacks us or lifts us up with sudden grace.  Three words are markers for me:  the uncanny (that is, what is unaccountable but not necessarily threatening and possibly explained eventually); the horrible (a danger that can’t be processed); and the sublime (felt access to deep meaning of a transcendent sort).  These stories carry the abiding interest of anthropological inquiry into exotic groups like soldiers of fortune, astronauts, bedouin, gypsies, sex workers, CEO’s or -- okay, extreme fighters.  

Anthros talk about the “emic” versus the “etic” , but since those words unfortunately summon up in my own mind emus if not emetics, I prefer the theological idea of a circle inside of which the person is a believer, belongs to the culture, sees the world through those eyes, versus outside the circle where the practices, resources, and goals of those inside are understood as information, structures, and so on -- but objectively only one possibly arbitrary way of being.  Stories can be told from inside the circle, outside the circle or even a mixture of both.  Video games, mostly from inside the circle, intend to give us a compelling visual and auditory experience of being there, even if the “there” is impossible, and presses us into a mind set that presumably can let us “survive” there.  I suspect that strategy is as important as violence.  (I’m not a gamer.)

A dimension not often acknowledged outside the world of video gamers, but touched on by Scholefield is that of aesthetics: the poetic ability to summon up metaphors and images that are visionary beyond anything we normally experience.  Words and images have a special ability to sweep us into mental and emotional states.  They take us into the “feeling” concepts that are under our consciousness. 

We normally think of altered consciousness in terms of drugs.  Some remark on contemporary alcoholism among American Indians as the result of never having developed the use of toxins to affect their thoughts and release emotions.  But in fact American Indians commonly used environmental pressure on physical homeostasis (cold, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, wounds) to distort their mental processing -- sometimes on purpose and sometimes as a necessity.  Whether the result is desperation, rage, exaltation (maybe a combination), or a great peacefulness in the aftermath, is open to investigation.  The dynamics of emotion in extreme circumstances, especially those of bonding or shock, may be more consciously investigated in video games and movies than in the processing of real-world war acts.  If they were, we might understand PTSD better.  Could a video game help heal PTSD?

Schofield speaks of ransacking every source of ideas he can find, including comics and documentaries.  He mentions “The Devil Came on Horseback” and how the author of that book, Brian Steidle, a “peace keeper” in the Sudan, noted that dust storms can shut down the most powerful modern army machines, an idea he used as a “timer” -- a deadline pressing the action.   He does not include the most extreme horror: little girls from a school who were shackled in a huddle and set on fire -- alive.  Ashes and bones are all that remain -- plus whatever imagination shows us.  I don’t recommend the video but it’s on YouTube.  It IS extreme.

Schofield does show the orderly ossuwaries of skulls in the catacombs under Paris and tells us he used the image as a break in action.  And he mentions the French preoccupation with what is called the “New French Extremity” school of cinema.  These include “torture porn” and other atrocities that can be visited on the human body.  He does not mention the school of “enviro porn” showing the destruction of the “flesh” of the planet.  I’m not sure he’s aware of it.

We seem to be in a time when we search for extremes, boundaries, edges -- maybe because so many of them have been pushed back.  Maybe the most obvious example is our space probes, now outside the solar system.  In the opposite direction, there is a strange unease in finding the Higgs Boson -- on the one hand wanting it to truly be the end of all searching but on the other the nagging itch that there might be more, even rather hoping there is.  We also seek edges in our social arrangements.

Here is the creative advice of Schofield as he lists them on his video:

Keep an open mind.  Dismiss ego.  Consider all possibilities.

Assess priorities.  Establish an order.  List them.

Research while staying aware for the “golden nugget”.  Go deeper.  Then go wide, to related fields.  The obscure, the forbidden.  Have experiences.  Travel.  Don’t neglect details.  Take a zillion photos or sound tapes.  Notice the small human gestures and framings.  Shapes of spaces.

Use other people’s experiences, consultants, historians, scientists, leaders, the news, teaching tapes, field records.   Quote other films, esp. well-known ones.  Know “The Public Psyche.”

Pin-up boards, like the ones on cop shows and on the walls over the work counters of clothes designers.  Create reference booklets of photos and art images.  (For writers, save quotes, but be sure to include sources.) 

These warnings:

Inspiration may not take a direct path, but may turn out to be a labyrinth of multiple sources.

Sometimes the most crucial element comes by accident while researching something else.

The whole thing is likely to be messy -- you don’t know exactly where you’re going, how you will get there, and what you will end up with.

In the end there will be a “rule set” derived from free association and then “what if” questions.  These are the “paradigms,” the grammar of the story.  They might be trivial and conventional, or they might be transcendent and surprising. 

The following little schema is mine, derived from neurological research:

The black box :  What goes in (sensory)
What happens inside the mind (paradigms, expectations, deep beliefs, imagining)
What gets done about it and whether it leads to survival.

THEN, how to communicate all this material that may seem unpredictable, unprocessable, undoable, uncommunicable.  This is the ground of science fiction as well as video games.  What I miss in the latter is the “soft sciences” of psych and philosophy.  Maybe some of the energy of video games can be reverse-engineered into new sci-fi.  Or maybe fantasy is where the psych and philosophy have gone -- are those in video games, too?  A three minute search finds “The Longest Journey” on YouTube.  Female art student protagonist.  Multiple languages.  Many bits plus long records of other people’s games.

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