Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Questions Towards A Philosophy of Gaming, Transmedia, and Myth

By James Curcio

As Mr. VI has started to explore, there is a clear connection between games and gaming, and modern myth. However, the layers of this connection cut much deeper than surface analogies. I'd like to look a bit at the process of analysis, or de-construction, that many of the writers here on Modern Mythology have been taking. And I'll keep it to gaming, in hopes of seeing more posting about games of all kinds to come. This is a tip of the iceberg, off the top of my head type of inquiry.

There's a layer of looking at something - let's say a specific game, like Final Fantasy VII and then saying, "look at how this other specific myth was an intentional or unintentional influence..." The villain is named Sephiroth. What does that do for us? Sometimes you can make an interesting point with those analogies. Most college papers work like that- relate Charles Dicken's Tale Of Two Cities to Marx or whatever.

That kind of analysis is OK, we've done some of it here for instance looking at various vampire or apocalypse myths in modern media. But this is generally done as a means of getting a glimpse at a larger picture, or process, at work. So, we're not actually pointing to a deeper relationship which could be represented through the example of the relationship of characters in a Disney film, if we so choose. But we're not scrutinizing Disney.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer
And Philosophy.
We want to look at those deeper trends, the holographic or fractal view one can catch by blowing things up or scaling them down, twisting them around, looking at them in a way that most people might not consider. But it can only be done sometimes through an allegory or metaphor, even in an essay. That is what I would hope to do whether we're talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the "end of history." This approach to analysis is not about 1:1 analogies, "what Hindu goddess are the female character in Buffy?" but instead a new vantage point that we're trying to point out by making associations - top down, bottom up.

For instance, in biology there's the argument that competition drives evolution, and there is a counter-argument that there are co-operative factors. These are two myths, especially when rendered as "evolution is inherently competitive," (and co-operation is incidental), or vice versa. Of course, we can create synthetic myths that encompass both views.

So we're looking at games in myth, right, that's what we're here to do - but we want to cut deeper than just sifting through video games and finding the shallow points of overlap between myth and gaming, like when a mythological character appears, or even the plot-line of a game follows a pattern in a myth - unless if we can draw something insightful out of that association. That's been the goal here. Sometimes, maybe, we succeed and sometimes we stay on the surface. Blog posts have to run fast, you have to hit hard and keep going, so you just keep swinging hard as you can.

Let's take that swing. We've talked about competition and cooperation as ways that we can view evolutionary progress. Where do we find that in gaming? Do some games emphasis one rather than the other, and what are the results of that emphasis? In a narrative sense? In terms of the gamer or participant? The game system elements of competition and cooperation can apply to anything, even SEO. Our world really is a sprawling hub of networked information, and hierarchies are myth-dependent.

A lot of the material written about gaming and its social or cultural effects are some kind of alarmist noise, or they come out in support of gaming. Books and articles are constantly re-acting to this. The first time I can recall it being a major thing was around the time of the Tipper Gore family values thing, and the ripples off of that. Though I'm sure it began before then.

From Techshout
All such stories have stats peppered throughout, to prove their point, and they all allow an opportunity to take a position and spin it towards an overarching thesis. "Video games are destroying our attention span," is a popular myth, but what about ones like "games are actually a fundamental part of how we learn about ourselves and the world and game design that realizes this also must take responsibility for that role, and thusfar it does not"? Is that question too hard to formulate, so we just go for the cheap fear question?

But if we ask that question, suddenly knowledge of the mythic implications of gaming becomes of utmost importance. The only way to know the cultural effects of a myth are to understand the interplay between the two. Our moral myths will sculpt any kind of moral conclusions or presuppositions that we'd draw from this. Throw them out as garbage.

In the Immanence of Myth, Stephen Hershey does a brief exploration of the military and their utilization of myths in video games to recruit and train, and how these games and the overarching military rhetoric forms a myth that draws in their would-be converts. But that just means they understand something about how to market. Why can't we sell intelligence? Why can't we sell education and team-work without making it hokey and awful? The moral failure isn't the military using these things. It's that no one else does. The fact the military knows games are great recruitment and training tools and yet the schooling system does not? Unconscionable. Watch this presentation by Jane McGonigal. It covers what I talk about in this post, and then some, in very direct terms.

What role do games play in our lives and development? Animals play to learn or at least hone almost all their skills. Wolves, chimps, killer whales, they all learn to hunt through play, and learn most social games through games as well which factor into, you know, their very evolution in the long run. It isn't hard to say the same is true for us. A lot that we don't think of as game is, especially in the social sphere, and again the role of comparative vs cooperative games is big here.

Another layer of game analysis is "what is a game?" and the best place to begin to answer that question is Wittgenstein's language games.
"The rules of language (grammar) are analogous to the rules of games; meaning something in language is thus analogous to making a move in a game. The analogy between a language and a game brings out the fact that only in the various and multiform activities of human life do words have meaning. (The concept is not meant to suggest that there is anything trivial about language, or that language is 'just a game', quite the contrary.)"
So games may be many things, which do not necessarily seem to relate to each other. They may mean different things, as well, to different participants. When you play hide and go seek with a child, it is different than when children play it with one another. Our reasons for playing them differ, and they in many ways encompass the whole of our social activity, which yet again is not to reduce it and say "it is all just a game," but rather to say that the idea of "game theory" applies to all group activities. It also means - and this is something I have been trying to convince corporations of for years to no avail - that learning and productivity can oftentimes be made fun, if they aren't fun, without resorting to cheesy bullshit like "casual Friday." What it means is that we can bring work and play together as part of the continual ongoing experience of our lives as social beings, and if you don't think what I just said logically follows from that Wittgenstein quote, then you obviously don't roll with seven gram rocks. This is a part of my management philosophy, which I will proudly say in a sentence right next to another that ended with "seven gram rocks." Because being passionate about my work and my play is how I roll, and anyone who says that can never happen is already dead, they just don't know it yet. (Of course it can't always happen.)

You can also find a new perspective on the idea of "game" in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), and Dave Szulborski's book "This Is Not A Game" is one of the best introductions to this subject from this very question "what is a game?" on up to modern examples of game both as marketing device and art form. Full disclosure, I worked with Dave on several projects - and one big one that we never got to really go fully into because of his ailing health, ultimately. So I know for a fact that he knew his subject on more than an academic level.

ARGs are a good means of looking at social interaction, marketing, and how those can be leverages either to tell a narrative or sell a product or idea. There is a lot of tension right now that exists between the way that "the suits" see these games working, and the way that creatives would like to utilize them to tell a narrative. Both of these are possible. You could create an ARG with transmedia elements that, for instance, spun Google's attention away from a news story. Yes, I'm talking about crowdsourcing SEO espionage through the use of narratives that get pushed to a large enough audience, you can be sure people are already doing it, but no, we're not going to do it for you unless you pay us a lot of money. (Otherwise, I have no idea what you're talking about. Of course it can't be done. I'm just making shit up in my blog, are you insane? Do you see SEO Assassin in my resume?)

Perhaps thankfully, many companies don't see these possibilities, though they also don't see the potential positive ways that narrative and business can be married through long term partnerships. They think about ARGs in tradition advertising terms. Audi wants to help give their traditional marketing campaign a little push so they organize a game called Art of the Heist that popularizes the A3 before it is released, creating a mystique around this yet-to-be-released model. Products can be placed in the social sphere through actors and other plants. These can be tied into a transmedia campaign as well. You can see a quick case study of that below.

But the thing that "suits" don't understand about these games is that any success with longevity attains it through the narratives or myths themselves. In other words, there is even a dollars and cents benefit to a "good story," although it might not present itself for a very long time, and it may be nearly impossible to pin down on a spreadsheet. A lot of people are running scared right now, and that's having an effect on what gets funded, but I think we all know that to keep competitive, content that engages is one thing. But we're all looking for the thing that's going to transform us.

So, to get back to our point here: games are a natural way that we learn, that we interact, and they can be used to disseminate memes, behavior patterns, then why are we consistently funding and providing energy to only the shittiest games? (Though I've got to say, I love me some First Person Shooters. So shut up about that already.)

We are always teaching one another with the games we play, even when we don't realize we're playing games. And many myths about fun and play, and seriousness and productivity, are a hinderance to not only our actual productivity but also our health. That learning is not fun, that intelligence is not sexy, that education must be performed in an industrialized, factory-model approach that emphasis competition and rote memorization, is demonstrably detrimental in every way except for "units per minute." If we think of humans as anything other than robots, as the people that build the robots, at the very least, then we need to completely revolutionize how we look at games and gaming.

A revolution of how we conceive of games, and of gaming in general, could transform how we work and play, it could even transform our relationship with one another. But as always the question is where this will begin, and why it remains so much easier to virtualize greed and hostility than compassion and cooperation?

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.


  1. Well-laid-out provisional framework over-all. For a more formal work like this, you may want to remember it's not "competative" it's "competitive" and remind us that a testable scientific theory is significantly (if ultimately not substantially) different from just a myth, though it may also be a myth (evolution is a myth, nuclear weapons are a myth, and mass destruction is the only reality of weapons to be found @the end).

  2. This is a blog, as such, it is often the 1st draft or notes of material that later makes it to publication (or not) after going through several editors.

    That often - though not always - deals with typos such as "competative" vs "competitive" (even editors miss typos in the New York Times).

    As for the caveats you mention, you might want to look at one of the many books (http://www.mythosmedia.net) or hundreds of other articles we've published here on the site prior to this one -- there's no way we can cram everything into one place. That issue is dealt with, at length, by quite a few different contributors at several places, in several times.



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