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The School of Gaming, Part 2: Techno-Barbarism or Essence of Humanity?

By Ned Madden
May 19, 2011 5:00 AM PT

The School of Gaming, Part 1: Welcome to Ludoland

The School of Gaming, Part 2: Techno-Barbarism or Essence of Humanity?

Many popular video games get a lot of bad publicity for their seeming emphasis on violence and the random techno-barbarism of advanced warfare. But there does exist true humanity at the heart of video games.

The basic elements that make most video games fun and engaging involve game "mechanics" (tools or working parts) that prompt a corresponding "dynamic" (driving force of human need requiring satisfaction):

Points/credits = reward; levels = influence and status; challenges = achievement; leaderboards = competition; virtual goods = self-expression.

The Brain of the Gamer

Gameplay seems to map human consciousness as it's described by American psychologist Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Features of consciousness mapped by gameplay:

  • Spatialization: Refers to our assumption of a metaphorical "mind-space" in which we separate the things we consider as if they were individual objects. Mimicked by the PC or TV screen-space upon/within which video games unfold.
  • Excerption: Selecting memories of situations and experiences and assigning after-the-fact significance, importance and meaning to them in order to identify purpose and make them useful for fueling narratization.
  • The Bifurcated Self: The analog "I" is the first-person master pronoun and knower/controller of our consciousness, while the metaphorical "Me" is the objective-case personal pronoun of "I" and the thing known and controlled. In video games, player and avatar assume these roles.
  • Narratization: Explains and narrates our actions.
  • Conciliation: Brings together the contents of narration into mental space.

This player/avatar tandem in gameplay maps the mental metaphor we have of our bifurcated selves. Though video games generally limit true expressions of free will and force the action, the player does get to move the avatar about in the game, just as the analog "I" of consciousness moves the metaphorical "Me" part of the self about in the imagination. A person's "I" is always imagining his or her "Me" doing things that the person is not actually doing but might eventually do, then forming excerptions of things actually done and remembered.

The "I"/player sees itself as the main figure in a story that takes place in spatialized time as it looks out at some state of affairs (impending battle with Orcs, for example) and imagines sending the shape-shifting "Me"/avatar to act within the fractal fantasy world upon other fictitious characters.

Godthink in Ludoland

Games and religion have been historically linked in many societies because great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals. For many centuries, sport and games were under church control because of clerical jurisdiction over both body and soul. Games are a specialized sort of ritual, and rituals are a formalized way for people to interact with and act out the story systems that make up their lives. Games allow people to look at the nature of reality and offer alternative possibilities for interacting with it.

Seeking and finding alternative possibilities is why video games subvert traditional religio-political relationships, and nowhere is this more obvious than in what they've done to the idea of God (aka, the creative force of the universe) -- nothing less than the incipient re-ordering of modes of thinking based on millennia of organized religions often put to misuse in the service of empire.

Video game makers have ransacked nearly 3,000 years of myth and legend to find strong characters and powerful stories. Lucas Arts' "Wrath Unleashed" (2004) is just one example of the use of demigods, unicorns, demons, giants and dragons as symbols of supernatural power to juice up video games. A war between the gods of the four elements (Water, Fire, Earth, and Wind) shatters the homeworld, and then there's no end to the trouble.

Playing God

In such games, "God Mode" (also known as "cheat mode") is a game state, usually triggered by a hack or keystroke sequence, wherein the player's character becomes immortal or possesses an infinite number of lives, and may have other powers such as an all-ammo-all-the-time gun, or the ability to walk through walls or fly, etc.

God Mode gives the player an advantage in the game -- for example, making him or her impervious to damage or injury, and thus unbeatable.

Then there are the so-called God games, which describe the player's relationship vis-a-vis the gameplay. "SimCity," designed by Will Wright, is a city-building simulation game, first released in 1989. In this game (and its many sequels), the player, from high above, creates a world. In the full version of the PC game "The Sims," players create an entire neighborhood of Sims and run -- or ruin -- their lives. They can help their Sims pursue careers, make friends and find romance -- or destroy themselves.

The literary term "Deus Ex Machina" is Latin for "God from the Machine" -- a dramatic device (a guy in a basket lowered onto the stage) used to resolve plot twists at the end of overlong classical plays.

"Deus Ex" is a series of first person video games: "Deus Ex" (2000), "Deus Ex: Invisible War" (2003), and "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" (2011). "Deus Ex" is a first-person role-playing game set in a dystopian 2052. Players take on the persona of JC, an operative with a top-secret antiterrorist organization. His body and mind have been augmented with nanotech implants that help him fight, think and sneak his way through a completely interactive world filled with intrigue, conspiracies and encounters with other characters. Another God game, "Civilization: Call to Power," even provides players with the option of creating a theocracy.

Ultimately, all game players transmute into Son 'o God, Jesus-like death cheaters who can always be reborn/resurrected in new games to play again.

Watch and Do

Video games are among the new forms of literacy now emerging and displacing the old linear constructs. Involving interactivity, our existence requires of us some personal shaping instead of just accepting what's presented to us pre-built and immutable. Artificial intelligence -- an algorithm by which the computer gives the illusion of thinking like a human -- compels us to think back.

Gameplay alters our fundamental concepts of the world around us, a world based on doing rather than watching, listening, reading. A human doing instead of a human being. We do the telling instead of getting told. As players we can invent worlds, then create situations within those worlds, then respond to the new situations -- controlling characters, manipulating environments.

We finally emerge from the cocoon of Western Civilization, which just may have committed suicide at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but we don't know yet. After all, it took the Romans more than 100 years to notice that that their civilization had fallen. Once emergent, we -- each and every one of us released at last from our spiritual constraints and redeemed by the hand's impulse that moves quicker than the intellect -- realize our destiny: sprung whistling past the gravity, gone listening for the glistening, godthinking/godplaying our way through Ludoland.


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