Saturday, September 20, 2014

What every true gamer should know

Games are microcosms. They are small, self-contained worlds wherein you as the player are free to roam. The limits on just how much you can roam varies from game to game, but in general there are several ways to get things done. Which one you choose at any particular time might depend on your mood, intention, level of roleplaying or, indeed, skill level.

You are never free to roam as you wish. No game is ever without limits, and if you keep at it for long enough you will encounter these limits. In some games, such as tic-tac-toe, the limits are brutally visible: the 3x3 grid contains everything that will ever be. In more complex games, the limits might not be as visible, but they are still there. And you will encounter them, given time.

As your skill level grows, you will gradually become more and more hemmed in by these limits. What can reasonably be done has most likely already been done, and the temptation to go for the impossible grows with unreasonable speed.

When confronted with this unreasonable impossibility, there are two ways to keep on gaming. The one way is to impose certain limitations on what one can and cannot do during gameplay, in order to increase the difficulty level. These limitations include such things as not using healing items, not saving, never being hurt, not killing anyone, collecting every single gold star whilst doing all these other things, and so on and so forth. The more you selfimpose, the harder it gets, and the more impressive it becomes once it's done.

The other way is to go in the opposite direction. Ditch any pretense of limitations and abuse the underlying game mechanics until they break. Squeeze every single possible bit of utility out of the rules, and unleash it upon the gameworld. Find the edge conditions that give you unlimited money, then use this money to conquer the world. Find the loophole that lets you get all the super items, then get two of them. Find out where rule one and rule two combined produce strange results, then base your whole game around abusing these results.

One day, the island nation of Ryukyu shall rule the earth.

Here's the thing, though. It is very possible to frame a game in such a way that those who takes delight in pushing the limits and abusing the mechanics are every so subtly trained in the art of thinking in very particular ways. The limits are not so much limits as roadmaps, and pushing the limits leads not to freedom but to a very predetermined endpoint: to becoming a subject who thinks in certain terms, values certain things and sees certain things as both possible and necessary to do. The game games you as much as the other way around.

The game will not tell you this, of course. It will only ever give you the rewards it is programmed to give you: extra skill points, extra achievements, fancier armor, lemons, whatever. Extra trinkets to keep you playing along, happy that your progression is on the right path.

Looking for the ways in which you as a gamer is gamed requires you to think outside the sandbox. It requires you to ponder such things as whether or not the game you're playing actually makes sense - a question that is surprisingly often overlooked. What kind of character are you playing? Is the implied narrative actually relevant to anything you do? Is there some sort of meta-fictional context that would help explain why things are the way they are? Why is the graphics the way they are, and are there references to other visual arts to be found? Could the game be different?

These are not easy questions. They are also not the kind of questions that can be answered using the vocabulary of gaming. Mega Man might be able to navigate the world using the two all-encompassing actions of jumping and shooting, but if jumping and shooting are the only things you as a human being are capable of performing, then you are deficient in more ways than you know.

You could of course impose limitations upon yourself. Refuse to read about art, politics, ideology, feminism, psychology, history or anything else, and steadfastly keep trotting along the predetermined path. Or you could game the game as it tries to game you, and find that there is more than meets the eye.

Your move, player one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Psychoanalytical muffins

There's a lot of psychoanalysis about. As in, wherever you look, there it is. Mostly it ignores you, but sometimes it looks back at you, with an unreadable smile and knowing eyes.

It's uncomfortable that way.

Now, I imagine that many of you are reacting to these words in a similar fashion as an atheist would react to someone mentioning the bible. "It's nonsense" and unscientific and bullshit and all the rest of it. Which, to be brutal, is utterly beside the point. The point being that an idea that has had significant impact on culture, art, criticism and just about everything worth mentioning is worthy of being understood for the very reason that things don't make sense without it.

No disrespect to power dynamics and geopolitics, but the Thirty Years' War needs a portion of theology to be understood. (Which, also, warrants me to say this: do not respond to this with comments like "psychoanalysis is wrong". Do point out that I'm wrong about psychoanalysis, however.)

Thing is, it's mostly not understood. It's taken at a surface level and left there. Which leaves everything in a strange state of things, with biological family dynamics as the place where it's at. A not unimportant place, to be sure, but not the whole story. The family is the metaphor, but it won't carry if you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The pun is the point.

To recap some of the basics: the psyche consists of three parts, the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the primal urges we all know and love - eating, sleeping, fucking, appreciation of bad action movies. The ego is the "you", if you will, the thing that thinks and ponders and suffers soulcrushing anxiety and all that jazz. The superego is the internalized norms and values, and is the prime source of what we call "conscience".

Now, these three parts all interrelate in different ways. For instance: the id might want something, but the superego might insist on that something being Morally Wrong, leaving the ego in a delicate state of wanting the forbidden. Possible wanting it even more because it's forbidden. Thing is, no matter what the ego does, there's bound to be repercussions from the id and superego: if the ego gives in and indulges, the superego will act by affecting a bad conscience. If the ego abstains, the id will keep wanting the thing it wants, and won't let the ego forget it.

Life is suffering, as the saying goes.

The thing to ponder here is that none of these parts are inherently good or evil. One might assume that the id is evil, but it isn't - it doesn't have sufficient underlying intentionality for that. It just wants to eat a muffin because it tastes good, and that's the whole line of reasoning. It's a beast, but it's a simple beast. Conversely, the superego is not good just because it's associated with conscience. In fact, it's positively anal and sadistic in what it punishes the ego for - even the slightest thing can provoke it into a guilt trip worthy a Christian saint. It only ever wants the ego to follow the rules, even if these rules border on the ridiculous. Any deviation is punished, and any remorse is outsourced to the ego.

The ego, thus, is ever in a bind. And will be until death does the parts apart.

The dynamic between the parts works as thus: giving in to either the id or the superego won't give the ego any long term advantages. The ego will want another muffin soon after the first one is consumed, and the superego will become ever more fine-grained in what it considers to be adherence and deviation the more you allow it to dictate your moves. Giving in won't make them go away - it will only make them go further, give them incentive to keep going.

There are things to be said about Freud's use of the notion of energy. There's an economy to what gets energy and what doesn't, and there's always a limited amount of it. Some of it is seized by the id (GIMME DAT MUFFIN), some of it is appropriated by the superego (in order to punish you better), and some of it is wrested by the ego in an effort to withstand it all. Or, indeed, to do anything in need of doing. Depending on what has the most energy, and in what proportions, the ego has lesser or greater scope of manifesting its will.

Much to the chagrin of the id, a person cannot eat muffins all the time. Not for lack of wanting, but due to the brutality of social existence. There's things that has to be done, and no slack is given. There's also things that are forbidden to be done, and anyone wanting to do these things will have to find other outlets for this wish.

Freud calls this "sublimation". The most widely used example is the horny artist who only ever wants to have sex, but due to lack of sexhavers has a whole lot of pent-up energy, and uses this to paint works of art instead. The energy must flow, and if it can't flow directly it will have to find some indirect way. What blocks the direct way might be the superego, societal norms or literally anything - if there's a will, there's an indirect way of manifesting it.

It's at this stage the family comes in. Freud uses the Father, Mother and Child as metaphors for the things that shape the dynamic between the parts. What actually happens in reality might involve the family, but it might as well not - it's not the point. Father as rulemaker stands in for any particular thing that creates the rules the superego proposes; Mother as caretaker stands in for any particular thing that comforts and provides; and Child is a subtle pun, making us remember that no one is as mature as they'd like to pretend to be.

To be sure, one's family (in whatever form it happens to have taken) is an important aspect of an individual's history, and knowing about it helps putting everything else into context. But what actually happened isn't as important as that which continues to happen, and more specifically as how a person treats what they remember. Memory is not passive retrieval, but active processing, and there's bound to be subtle clues and cues in how a person chooses (or is dynamically forced) to relate personal events.

The same goes for dreams: what happens in the dream isn't important in and of itself, but the way a person tells it and how they interact with the dream stuff is - pardon the pun - telling.

There's no way to actually know what happened in family history or dreamspace. What a person says could very well all be lies and on-the-fly inspirational improvisation. How the person says it, however, especially over extended conversational sessions, is harder to fake. It reveals things about the internal dynamics, and how id and superego makes life hard for the ego.

This is, as a sidenote, somewhat related to Freud's insistence that people promptly pay for their therapy sessions. Not only as a way to keep afloat economically, but to keep the conversations on the level. It ensures a certain dynamic to the conversation, as it were.

As you might have gathered, there's a subtle distinction between theory and practice here. On the one hand, there's the theory (superego and all that). On the other hand, there's practice, as in what to do when one has a living, breathing and (hopefully) talking person in the room. It is quite possible to understand the one without having a clue about the other. Theory is not praxis, and there's a reason many practitioners chose to deviate from being pure Freudians.

As with all things humans do, someone is bound to find a better way to go about it. And wonder why others don't see why it is better.

Enter Lacan, who paradoxically moved away from Freud by returning to his writings. To make a long story very short, he had misgivings about psychoanalytic orthodoxy as it had developed institutionally, and sought to return to basics. Which, as you might imagine, didn't go as well as he'd think, and he went off doing his own thing. The same thing, but his own, nevertheless.

Which replaces id/ego/superego - familiar as they are - with the more nebulous real/imaginary/symbolic. It's still a triad, and in many ways the same triad. The Real being, at its most basic, the existing world, and a person's experience of it, unfiltered through language. The symbolic is this language, and also the ideas and ideologies and structures that exist within it. The imaginary, being an analogue to the ego, is the attempt to merge these two: the idiosyncratic synthesis of experience and language into something, anything, that makes sense.

To illustrate: MUFFINS TASTE GOOD. This is the unmediated experience of the world, #nofilter as it is sometimes called. Thing is, humans filter just about everything we do, and nothing is ever just what it is. Thus, the eating of the muffin translates into discourses about fitness, diets, health and what it means to be a self-disciplined person. The Real morphs through the Symbolic, and the ego/imaginary is left to make sense of the amorphous mess that is left over.

This is, incidentally, a case for reading philosophy: it makes for a better imaginary experience.

The imaginary, like the ego, is where it is at. The mumbling, jostling confusion of experience and discourse, and fragments of both comingling into a traumatic experience that can only be described as endured. The muffin tastes good, but there's a lot of buts, but there's also other things to think about, distractions, other symbolic structures to go about experiencing. A muffin is only a muffin, but there's a lot to think about before and after nomming it.

The symbolic makes sense. It is sensemaking, in a sense. It's the order of things, the ordered world that mere mortals can only hope to one day comprehend. We might compare it to a Platonic ideal, if only for the connotations that brings: there is a way things are supposed to be.

This returns to the subject as the experience of the Big Other. There is an idea of how things are supposed to be, and this idea is watching you trying to do that very thing, judging you. The Big Other knows what you are doing, and it knows the thoughts leading you to do what you're doing, judging all the way. You might pass with flying colors, or you might be left with a feeling that you didn't do enough - either way, judgment is passed.

Or, put another way: What would people say?

To exemplify: "real [category] don't eat muffins". You know it, and the big other knows you know it. Your relation to the muffin, and the eating of said muffin, is colored by this. Whether you eat it or not won't change this dynamic - you're still in a situation where you know it knows. But it will affect your approach to this category. Whatever it might be.

If you've ever felt you're not really a part of something, this is it. Especially if that something is "academia".

If you've read a book or three, you might recognize some of these ideas. There's any number of parallels to Foucault, Butler and other social writers of the 20th century. Ideas never spring from nowhere, and there's always someone else who has done it before. There will, indeed, always ever be. The letter always arrives.

I want to end this post by mentioning that I've written most of this from memory and sudden inexplicable inspiration, and have become ever more aware of just how much I've forgotten about all of this. Thing is - it makes more sense as a blog post than as a general memory, and is more useful as something written than as something remembered. I am all too aware that the Big Other has objections, but it will always have. And thus, the choice:

Do it anyway, or let myself be symbolically unrealed?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New media, old class

One of the things I've written least about is that I'm brutally conservative. As in, I don't think things have changed all that much the last decades. Or, rather, things have not changed as much as they'd seem when looking at what people have said about how much things have changed.

Let's take an example: crowdfunding.

Now, I'm the first to say that it's all well and good that people can create alternative ways of financially supporting good things. There are too many good ideas not realized due to the lack of funding, and too many ideas are subverted by crony corporate funding. Getting away from that is unequivocally a good thing.

However. There's a distribution as to which things gets funded and which does not. And this distribution has striking similarities to old lines of class, gender, ethnicity and all that jazz.

The net result is not the abolition of these factors, as some cyberutopians have suggested, but rather a slight shift as to the conditions under which they operate. Which is visible not least in the case of Sarkeesian, who indeed got funding, but also a whole slew of other things to go along with it. Things that are not explained (away) by the net, nor caused by it. Merely amplified by it, moving along the path of same old same old.

We might also assume that not everyone will get a $55k potato salad.

Now, to reiterate: it is a good thing that crowdfunding exists. But there's virtue in not overselling just how much of a difference it will make. The new world is still the old world in many respects, and even more so in its lack of respects. -