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Month: November 2015

Avatars, Narrative, and Absent Minds

My post for this week is going to be something a little different from previous weeks. I’ll be using this opportunity to introduce everyone to a particular game that relates to some of the questions we have been pursuing this semester–Gone Home (2013, PC/Mac) by indie game company Fullbright.

Gone Home is a first-person exploration game that tells the story of Kaitlin, a college student who returns home to find her family curiously missing. gonehome_titlescreen.pngKaitlin explores the house trying to find out what has happened to her family, and discovers quite a bit about them while doing so. Without revealing too much, the game has become noteworthy for its endearing portrayal of LGBTQ characters and their struggles.

What makes Gone Home so interesting in regards to our course is its focus on discovering and encountering the minds of other characters through the objects they have left behind. As we read in Bailenson’s “The Virtual Laboratory” for this week, “virtual behavior is, in fact, ‘real'” (94). Through a series of experiments with virtual reality, Bailenson and his team were able to show that “agents” and avatars encountered in virtual spaces are perceived in much the same way actual people are in actual space. I use the term actual space quite intentionally–as anthropologist Tom Boellstorff has noted with his studies in Second Life, it is not very apt to call it “real” space when what happens in both actual and digital spaces is “real”. Bailenson and Boellstorff (amongst many others) have thus shown us that our cognitive processes in virtual/digital realities are not so different from such processes in the actual world.

But Gone Home presents a different case. So we encounter avatars similar to how we encounter real people, but what happens when there are no avatars to encounter? What happens when those avatars are absent, and all we have is whatever they have left behind (or, to complicate things, what the designers created and made to look left behind)? We still get a sense of character in GoGone-Home-3.jpgne Home, but that character must be discovered as part of an emergent narrative found and created by the player. I suggest that we use similar theory of mind processes to construct and interpret characters in Gone Home, but that these processes have been broken up. In other words, we are still encountering minds, but minds that have been fragmented into different objects that can be discovered or ignored by the player. This necessarily requires space–space for the objects to dwell in, and for the player to move in.

A further point to consider in Gone Home is that every act becomes a narrative one (a significant point in the game narrative study our group is designing). Unified character has been removed, and in its absence character must be recovered through interaction with objects. Because of this,  even the simple act of moving within the game world has narrative import by virtue of navigating the space and objects that comprise the entirety of the game’s story. Play in Gone Home is narrative, exactly what our group is trying to prove in other games.

These are just a few threads to pursue as an introduction to the game. We will play Gone Home together in class on Tuesday–I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say about it!

Narrative, Play, and ASD

At last year’s International Narrative conference, I had the great pleasure of attending a panel chaired by Lisa Zunshine on “Cognitive Approaches to Narrative”. One of the panelists, Ralph James Savarese, gave a fascinating talk on using fiction to help persons with ASD to develop better social skills and the ability to understand other minds (talk was titled “Reading Ceremony with Autist Jamie Burke”). At the time I remember being very intrigued by the prospect of using theory of mind to help others in this way, and (if memory serves) I recall Savarese also mentioning this activity being similar to using games and play to help persons with ASD to simulate interacting with others. Unfortunately this was little more than a fleeting thought at the time, and I have never returned to it until this week.

If narrative creates space for play and play moves narrative–things games are making us realize–then what implications do these things have for persons with ASD? What caught my attention about the description of ASD on PubMed was its effects on “creative or imaginative play”, a “crucial area of development” (PubMed Health). I understand how ASD affects creativity and imagination, but why play in particular? Of course such a question opens up on a whole host of other ones dealing with play as a cognitive tool for exploration and growth, so it may be helpful to narrow it down a bit here. Is it that persons with ASD do not play imaginatively or creatively, or that they do not play at all?

41AVVhtHugLThe answer to the latter question seems obviously no–as we can see in our primary reading for this week (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), people like Christopher certainly do play. One of the objects in Christopher’s pocket when he is picked up by the police is a piece of a wooden puzzle (13), his mother later buys him another wooden puzzle that he plays with (216-217), and he even plays a game of imagining the trains to help himself cope at the train station (179). He also often plays Minesweeper when he is at home in his room with Toby. So it isn’t that someone with ASD (and here I know it’s problematic to draw general conclusions from a portrayal of a single fictional character, but bear with me) cannot play, nor is it that they cannot imagine or create. The puzzles Christopher solves are often of the brain-teaser variety, and require him to think very creatively in order to solve them. And yet there is something different about the way Christopher plays.

I suggest that that something relates to the structure and end-state of the play Christopher engages in. Christopher’s play is almost always rigidly structured, and more importantly it is play that must have a solution. Christopher does not like open-ended play, as seen in the imaginative play in the train station I mentioned: “And normally I don’t imagine things that aren’t happening because it is a lie and it makes me feel scared . . .” (179-180). Unfettered imagination is scary for Christopher because it presents too many possibilities that are impossible to bring down to one solution, and the stimulation and uncertainty of that is terrifying for him. Imaginative play must be tied to what is really happening, and failing that it must have a purpose and solution. This seems to me a crucial clarification of the PubMed definition of ASD–it is not that Christopher or anyone like him cannot imagine and create in their play, but rather that that imagination and creativity needs to be structured with a purpose/solution. As seems to often be the case, Christopher is not dealing with a disability or lack of capability so much as a different form of ability, a capability that requires certain rules and structures to function.

Emotion, Feelings, and All Sorts of Nope

It’s rare that I find myself mostly opposed to a text, but one of this week’s readings provided just such an instance. I wrote in a previous week’s blog about the strange and apparently irresistible call to evolution in cognitive studies, 2787652as though the origins of every cognitive process can be explained with “the Hamburglar (I mean evolution!) did it!” This week’s reading in Damasio’s Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain provides yet another example of this trend, with its seeming reduction of emotion to evolutionary hardwiring. I say seeming reduction here because it’s quite possible that these arguments get fleshed out more elsewhere in the book, but alas they do not here. I’ll try to avoid simply restating the problems with assuming cognitive processes are evolutionary though, and take this post in a different direction with Damasio’s argument.

One of Damasio’s basic claims in Chapter 2 is that emotions and feelings are not the same, which could be the beginning of a really fruitful discussion about how a seemingly singular cognitive/physiological process is operating in a few different ways. However Demasio defines these different concepts in problematic ways in an effort to isolate them for study. He writes: “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind” (28). On the one hand this conception of emotion and feeling clearly delineates them, making them easily observable and testable. However this comes at the cost of reifying the mind/body distinction that is so endemic and problematic in Western thought. What do we lose when we reduce emotion to simply being a physical or physiological process? And are we merely enforcing an arbitrary distinction here, dividing emotion and feeling when they are always already bound up with one another?

The distinction becomes even more problematic when we encounter Demasio’s description of feelings as “always hidden, like all mental images necessarily are, unseen to anyone other than their rightful owner, the most private property of the organism in whose brain they occur” (28). If feelings truly are hidden in this manner that emotions are not, then we run into a problem of seeing where the hidden and the unhidden interface with each other. In other words, if we cannot see feelings, then how can we make claims about what the content of feelings are in relation to emotions? This problem does not stop Demasio from claiming that feelings “are mostly shadows of the external manner of emotions” (29), indicating that feelings come after emotions. Even taken within his own argument that these processes are bound closely together, this is a shaky assumption at best.

I found myself thinking about these problems with Demasio’s argument throughout my reading of Persepolis (by Marjane Satrapi). When we see Marjane’s mother and grandmother remembering the difficult life of her grandfather (24-26), can we truly say that the emotion is coming first, and the feelings second? The opposite seems to be the case. They are not sad until their feelings surrounding the memory of their loved one make them sad. Demasio would likely attribute this to the example coming from a fictional narrative that places feeling before emotion, but at the very least it seems to demonstrate that the connection he is tracing can work both ways. The anger present in revolution in the graphic novel seems to point to this as well–it isn’t that the revolutionaries are immediately angry and then find their feelings afterward. Rather, they perceive a narrative of a particular feeling, giving rise to emotion in equal measure. If emotion and feeling are truly separable here, they are interwoven in a feedback loop that makes them seem inseparable, and this definitely complicates any effort to locate a beginning and end to the loop. While there are parts of Demasio’s argument that seem to bear weight, as used they play host to a great many problematic assumptions.

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