The Grand Panacea

What is the elixir of life, another name for the potion that is this post’s title?

In the legends it was supposed to grant endless life, unmarred by the diversions of aging and frailty.

How do you secure that feeling in your own life?

One way is to escape the world into a system that is otherworldly. Turkle’s discussion of video games represents this first option in her examples; children and adults playing games to “escape” the world, to feel like something else.

But, of course, her understanding is limited by her time; in those days, Space Invaders was an “escape”, even though you were still just dots on a screen blowing up. No exposition, no climax, just continual and ever increasing stimulation. Video games served as a sort of meditative practice, one that allowed escape from thought into the realm of pure gaming, the realm of figuring out the right coordinated actions to move from one screen to another until it became just too hard to complete. (interestingly, the original Pac-Man, due to a 255-value limit common to video games at the time, had a “perfect play” moment, where you could be the 255th level and effectively “win”, since the game couldn’t render the 256th level).

Games have moved beyond this, however, into the realm of true storytelling, and thus the “zen” of games has been supplanted by the true emotional impact they can bring.

Portal is one of the easiest examples to use.

In true video game fashion (consider it an homage), you pass through a series of initial “levels”. You are the character, whose name you know only from reading it off of information screens; you never speak; you never act out of turn. You follow directions, like a good little gamer; the game presents its challenge to you and you overcome it. Glados tells you what to do and you do it and that’s about all there is to it.

Then you get to the end of level 19 and this happens:

The game turns on you, tells you you’re doing great, and then proceeds to try to “kill” you. If you had no autonomy, then you jumped into the fire pit. But that’s not what you’re supposed to do, is it? You’re supposed to have recognized, by then, that the game is leading you on, that it doesn’t care for your success. So you do something that it doesn’t tell you to do, and you escape. 

Then the second part of the game begins, and things take a drastic change in style. Suddenly things become more emotionally resounding; you’re not in rooms lined in white-washed walls and sterile interiors, instead you’re stuck in the background rooms, moving against heavy machinery and dirty floors. And even though it’s all been programmed in, there’s a feeling of rebellion. You really do feel like you’re doing something the game doesn’t want you to, as though you really are resisting a controlling force. And though the game does not give you the zen experience, it provides you with an emotional experience that’s equally powerful, in a different way.

So video games have moved beyond their meditative powers into their cathartic expressions. There is no longer simply the feeling of achievement at beating a level, but the feeling of “fulfillment” at acting through a character to resolve a story. It’s pretty wild.

So, Turkle’s right, but she’s outdated by now. Things have progressed.



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