It should be noted that play is not essential to survival. It can even seem counterproductive to an organism safety is we consider how violent play between two puppies looks from our perspective. When they are quite young, dogs have a full set of disposable, razor-sharp teeth which they use to nip at anything that will play with them. When two are brought together, reciprocity dictates that they will each commit wholeheartedly to the game. They tumble, collide, nip, wrestle, and eventually bite unto one another’s necks without concern about the dangers of the surrounding environment. We often separate dogs when their play seems to escalate to be too rigorous or into a fight. We don’t often consider the correlation the dogs’ behavior has with high-impact sports or battles in a greater war. Instead, we worry about their well-being.
This play, however, is very much like what we do as young children. We are led by a compulsion to explore, emulate, and invent new ways to play with everything around us. While this is not necessary to our survival, per say, it is integral to our intelligence and mental complexity. Numerous studies have shown positive effects of play, such as socialization—without which we might isolate ourselves to the detriment of our health—and increased brain function—apparent from the much greater number of neurons in the brains of animals that are allowed to play versus those that are not. Indeed, the latter set of animals (those not permitted to play) show increased body fat, lethargy, and depression. Without play, we are less healthy, less intelligent, and far less happy.
This could present us with a number of questions. Why do we stop playing after adolescence? Well, we don’t. We simply move on the games or play with a completely new level of complexity, unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Why would we ever stifle play? Actually, I don’t want to touch this question with a ten foot pole. I can only imagine it would devolve into accusations of child abuse, so… If we continue to play more complicated games, why do some participate while others watch or experience that participation secondhand? Further, why does it seem that some don’t engage in anything that looks like play at all but still grow into adjusted, healthy, happy people?
I’m hardly covering new ground by suggesting that the scope of what ‘play’ means goes much farther than we typically think. Soccer is play, but so is Doom. It matters little that one is overtly physical while the other is physical only when one must throw a controller across the room. As I mentioned in the previous post, life itself fits the definition of a game, albeit one of which we have no manual and which thus disgusts us at times with its rigors and inconceivable—in truth—non-existent plot. The host of the Vsauce episode that set off this post points to our playing games, even ones of immense complexity, as an attempt to ensure fast, easy to achieve, and understandable rewards. This runs contrary to life as a game because with so many factors influencing your achievements, goals nearly always seem ephemeral, partially achieved, or impossible to describe. So we find solace in depictions of life which have been altered to as to adhere to a set of rules. This is true of Settlers of Catan just as it is true of Harry Potter.
What is the fundamental difference between readers, writers, and gamers? I won’t even attempt to try to codify that. It would be laughable, I’ve not done the research, and the answer would need a rather robust theory to comprehend. There are a few points that interest me enough to speculate, however. Writers must, a priori, be readers. To be a writer, on must be literate and possess some knowledge of extant written forms, genres, modes, tropes, etc. ad nauseum. The level or depth of knowledge one has of these things may vary greatly, but one must possess some amount. Long before a writer publishes, or at least has someone read their work, they are readers who know that their continued happiness hinges—at least in part—on their writing. They might be said to have a positive compulsion to attempt to understand or script some version of life through their own lens which they will then share with the world. It could be through a work written and sent on to another to read in isolation, in which case I would venture to say that each is engaging in a different kind of play, or it could be by fashioning a world for a table-top game, in which case all participants will engage as a game. Writing, and by extension reading, is always a game.
But why don’t all readers want to participate in the writing portion of the game? We are all, at some point, storytellers. We enjoy relating to others stories, true or untrue, regardless of how anyone perceives our ability to do so, including ourselves. Why does this not translate into writing (or scripting) in addition to reading? The same could be asked of gamers, who also engage with a narrative world with easily understood and achieved goals. Why is it that some people play video games and go on to create new ones while other only play? Why is it that some feel the need to engage in both creation and production while others do not?
The nearest I can come to an answer, or at least one that satisfies me, is that scriptwriters seek another level of control. They don’t simply want to experience the reward associated with achieving pre-formatted goals; they wish also to create goals for others. This is really half an answer, because it doesn’t touch on the next question: why do some wish to control and others to participate? That question is far too psychological for me and has likely already been attempted by many more qualified than I, so I have to find some contentment in the answer I am able to provide. For scriptwriters, part of the reward comes from packaging a new form of play for others to engage it. These scriptwriters might design physical sports, D&D scenarios, or novels. I am obviously most connected with the last of these, but all are equally fascinating and an attempt to understand one bring the observers closer to understanding something about all of them as well as what compels us, in the first place, to play.
Yesterday I finished reading J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come. It was his last novel and my first of his. The novel contains a really fascinating balance between the standard form of a mystery or conspiracy narrative and Ballard’s prosaic depiction of consumer culture and late capitalism’s pseudo-decadence. Rather than labor through a synopsis, here’s what Goodreads has:
A violent novel filled with insidious twists, Kingdom Come follows the exploits of Richard Pearson, a rebellious, unemployed advertising executive, whose father is gunned down by a deranged mental patient in a vast shopping mall outside Heathrow Airport. When the prime suspect is released without charge, Richard’s suspicions are aroused. Investigating the mystery, Richard uncovers at the Metro-Centre mall a neo-fascist world whose charismatic spokesperson is whipping up the masses into a state of unsustainable frenzy. Riots frequently terrorize the complex, immigrant communities are attacked by hooligans, and sports events mushroom into jingoistic political rallies. In this gripping, dystopian tour de force, J.G. Ballard holds up a mirror to suburban mind rot, revealing the darker forces at work beneath the gloss of consumerism and flag-waving patriotism.
That synopsis understates the sporting events—association football, basketball, tennis, etc., but surprising not cricket, which the narrator identifies as not being brutal enough—and hooliganism, but this is to be expected as they are little more than a cover for racial riots perpetrated by the fundamentally directionless and confused consumerist population of a highway town in a London suburb. The people are not to be seen as an exception or an outlier but rather as a a microcosm of an impending new cultural zeitgeist. It’s a terribly frightening prospect, not least because of how plausible it seems and how close it is poised on the horizon.
The novel brought to mind my relationship with organized sports. I am at most a casual sports fan. Growing up, I played with a few teams or leagues but never in consecutive leagues or years. I’m not sure if I kept finding that I didn’t like the games or if I was lazy or picked on too heavily, but I never came back after my initial year. This was true when I was 6 and I was the best—I’m told, although I was still quite awful—player on my basketball as well as when I was 13 and a rather average defensive player on a champion street hockey team. I usually preferred to play alone or at least without direct interference. I skated for years but I was always small and for a long time I was quite shy.
It’s a shame now, because I’ve grown into my body and I’m in better shape now than at any point in my life but I don’t know anyone interested in the physical games I enjoy. I still stick largely to games or physical activities I can do on my own but I would like to have someone with whom to play soccer or racquetball.
I got into soccer a few years ago but as I say, I’m only a casual fan. I am generally incapable or unwilling to follow the complexity of leagues in the US or abroad but I like to watch individual matches whenever I can. When a local developmental team was formed last year, I bought season tickets and didn’t miss a single game. Even so, after having watched for about two year, it was only during last summer that I was able to finally and regularly spot an off-sides violation. I really love to catch games whenever I can. There is a qualifier between the US and Mexico on Tuesday night that I have every intention of catching. Still, I’ve never understood how invested people can get over the long haul. My mother and my uncle are the most avid sport fans in my family and they religiously watch professional and college football, respectively. My mother screams obscenities at the television screen for even the most minor transgression again ‘her boys’ and my uncle has fantasy football magazines next to every toilet and easy chair in his house. They could both describe a waiver wire to someone who’s never even seen a football. For me, however, the allure lasts for a game, a competition, a qualifier, or a cup and then I pull back soccer until the next best time I can find.
There must be something in common with how I enjoy sports compared with how my mother and uncle do. It seems more likely to me that we are all getting from the match the same kind of BIRGing (Basking in Reflective Glory) or CORFing (Cutting Off of Reflected Failure) rather than distinctly different kinds of satisfaction. It must all be a matter of gradient. They put far more into watching sports than I do just as I put far more into what and how I read than they do.
Just as I was thinking of all of this, I watched a new episode of Vsauce about why we play games (the above mentioned acronyms are taken from this video) that made the problem even more complex. The video is fantastic and I highly recommend it, but seeing it isn’t necessary to understand where the information it contained took me. One first things the video tries to establish is an operational definition of a ‘game,’ and this screen grab sums up that definition pretty well:
That is to say that interactive play breaks in two parts, as do challenges and conflicts, so that a game can be defined as interactive, goal-oriented, and involving other agents who can interfere with and influence each other. The host then points out that life fits under this definition, which really goes a long way towards and understanding of why we play and why playing games can be so fulfilling while seeming to produce nothing tangible.
What is of even greater interest to me is how games, which are a scripted, more easily understood version of the greatest game—Life—correlate to narrative writing. On the basis of physicality, reading and writing can not really be called a game, or at least not without leaving great gaping holes in the concept. Reading and writing are only interactive on the level of thought and while this excludes the activities from being games, I’m not so sure that it also removes from the ‘play’ category. So what do reading and writing, or in one term narrative scripting, have in common not only with play but the impulse that makes us play?
I can’t say anything with certainty but I’ll post the second part of this article, including some of my ideas, later this week.
A wonderful site called “Grandma Got STEM” profiles grandmothers who have accomplished marvellous feats of technology, and aims to drive a stake through the heart of stupid, thoughtless phrases like “How would you explain that to your grandmother?” or “So simple my grandma could do it. — Grandmothers who are brilliant at technology - Boing Boing | This is a really brilliant concept aimed at changing how we think of women in STEM-related fields as well as dispelling the myth’s that pervade ageist discourse.
My first attempts at writing fiction were back in early 2005 at the same time that I transferred out of my first university, switched from a technical degree to one in liberal arts, and moved back to Texas. Though it sounds like a moment of huge upheaval for me, in truth it was more of a return to things I’d always done after realizing (for the first time) that a career in the sciences isn’t for me. As much as I love to nerd out on science, I’m afraid my interest will remain in the hobbiest/amateur arena. The closest I plan to come to being a chemist will be in brewing and baking, and that is already pretty close.
(Just to nip any anxious curiosity in the bud, the second time was when I started a second undergrad in pre-med, then switched gears after one semester—again—and got an MA in literature.)
Starting in 2006, I was part of a student organization which took the form of a writing workshop. Unfortunately, the group there wasn’t very helpful and several people never read anyone else’s work but rather tried to use the group for criticism of their own writing without giving back. It wasn’t a total loss, as I made a good friend from the class, but it was a net gain of zero for my writing.
As I got further along in my undergraduate career, my writing split about half and half between fiction and non as my classes finally became challenging. This marked the first time that I was proud of my non-fiction writing and it really planted the seed that grew into my interest in a graduate degree. After I completed my BA, i moved out of state, took a job, and kept writing daily, for a time. In late 2008, shortly after taking my first full-time, post-degree job, I gave up writing fiction. I still blogged from time to time, but mostly I read and worked a gig I hated. Though I didn’t give up writing because of the job, I know it didn’t help. Mostly, I was sick of hating everything I wrote and never having the stomach to edit the piece into anything better. I closed my notebook halfway through a story about an illiterate custodian’s battle for child custody and decided that I might one day return to writing with a bit more cultural currency in my pocket and a lot more books on my shelf. Then again, perhaps never at all.
For almost four and a half years, I wrote no fiction at all. By virtue of graduate school and a new blog (this ‘un right here), I got better at writing short form non-fiction and scholarly papers. I also became comfortable with outlining and editing. I didn’t even think of fiction writing. Increasingly, I’ve read more and more sf to the point that now it is something between 33 and 50% of what I read, and that is a rather conservative number. It probably ranges closer to 75%. I even focused on sf for my thesis and my cognate, which was always my hope. I’m a bit of an sf buff/nerd/geek/aficionado/term-of-your-choosing. I know it as a fan and as an academic.
When I returned to writing fiction this week, one of my goals was to try genre fiction for the first time. Before, I’d always written ‘general’ or ‘literary’ fiction. Now I realize that, for me at least, sf is a lot harder. I suppose it could be for a number of reasons, and only time will bare this out, which may include:
I’ve enjoyed meeting and exceeding my word count minimum this week. I’ve really liked forming new characters and planning a step or two ahead, but that’s as far as I’ve gone. I’m not totally sure why, but I decided to dive in without a plan for this first piece. I started with a word, then a sentence and a mood, but that’s it. I’m keeping a writing buffer so that if I put myself in a corner or kill story by writing it in circles, I can cull from the buffer to either revive what I’m working on or else start something new, but for just this first piece, I went in without a plan. That probably means that this piece will go out into the middle of nowhere and die a painful death in a paucity of ideas, but that’s ok. So long as I can introduce some sf element into the story that excites me, It will be a success.
The new Pontiff, for all the buzz about his modesty and care for the poor, opposed liberation theology during the Dirty Wars. That makes him as much an enemy of the people as Benedict was.
Even Francis should agree. Commander Hadfield is pretty fantastic.
I sat down last night to write my first allotted word count with one word in my head: effluvium. I’ve always loved the way this word feels in my mouth, particularly when juxtaposed against the utter conviction I have not to open my mouth when I encounter the stench. I live relatively close to a water treatment plant and last night on my first run in over a week, the smell was quite strong, if not unexpected, but not the bother it usually represents. Maybe that terrible fluctuating cloud has made some neural bridge and it now smells of home.
Regardless, I had a lot of fun writing the beginning of what could turn into a short story but is for now a rather pessimistic character sketch. I’m looking forward to returning to it later today.
Once again, I’m very much like Calvin’s dad and thus incomprehensible to some younger version of myself. Even so, I do love a morning job on the weekend. (Source)
I already wrote a bit about the events of the early evening of our last night in Chicago. High on the euphoria of the Cup Tasters Challenge, the four of us took a long walk and then even longer bus ride well across the city to The Neo-Futurarium. Actually, it was just under 7 miles, but damn did that ride seem to take forever.
The Neo-Futurarium is a former dancehall and home to the Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater troupe. The troupe started in 1988 with a show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes, which is what we saw. According to their site, it’s the longest running show in Chicago at 24 years, but the show is always evolving. I’ll get back to that in a minute.