Quick Check-in from Crowl
Context and gaming
This week, let's talk about context. As sapient creatures, we're hard-wired to build contexts. It's a survival skill. Stimuli out of context is a warning against possible threat, and a heuristic for processing other information. Hearing a sudden noise in an unfamiliar context sets off alarm bells in you brain, warning of attack. Hearing a human voice while you're taking a shower would do the same, if you'd assumed you were alone. In social settings, the context of a classroom, a night club, or busy street all inform your understanding of what behaviors are appropriate
The truth about Cats & Dogs
Cats and dogs. I mentioned cats in a previous article, and with good reason: Cats and dogs are the animals with whom most non-rural westerners get the most contact. In a sense, they're our closest connection with the animal world, though despite their similarities, their differences stand out most to us.
The key difference I'll point out this weeks is about how each seems to see the world. For dogs, their worldview is built around The Pack. The world makes sense as long as other pack-mates (read: you) are around, or at least signs of you (read: your stuff around the house). That's why dogs can go for a walk, meet other dogs, and otherwise travel about with you. Their world makes sense, in part, because you're there. As creatures built to hunt in groups to bring down large prey, that makes sense for them
Cats couldn't be more different. Take a cat (especially an indoor one) out of its "territory" and it freaks out (see my article on Territory, linked above). The world stops making sense. Truth be told, most creatures use something like this sort of framework to process information, and human beings are no different. Imagine just how unsettling the sound of a nearby carhorn or boombox would be in the middle of a forest, miles from civilization. On the flipside, imagine scenes in movies in which major city streets are empty, devoid of people, in the middle of the day. Like the Uncanny Valley, these scenarios are unnerving because they grind against our sense of context. As scary as this sounds for completely imaginary stories, there are also much, much scarier implications in reality.
Recap: The Stanford Prisoner Experiment
Okay. That's how powerful the frameworks are for the perceptions and behaviors of human beings. Nearly instantly, the students began acting out their roles in ways on which no one had to instruct them, and the depth of their immersion into the game (gaming concept inserted here intentionally) just kept getting stronger the longer they kept at it. The experiment was called off long before planned, and for good reason. Personally, though, what I find most disturbing, yet fascinating, is how long the student kept playing. They were each told their participation was voluntary, and that they could opt out at any time. "Prisoners" begged for help, tried to escape, held a strike, and often had major mental breakdowns, but not one of them asked to be removed from the experiment. Let me make that more clear: The players in this game were so immersed in it that the need to act out a role overpowered basic self-preservation and dignity. (Okay, that's the darkest this article's going to get. I promise).
What Crowl does for a Living in one Paragraph
I (as of the time of this article) work at a company that coaches people who want to overcome addictions to a certain drug. The cognitive and behavioral barriers that keep people in addictions are at least as important to overcome as the physical component, and arguably more-so. We engage with people who want to break out of those barriers to live their lives without that monkey on their backs. One of the first things we tell people is that our phone call is supposed to be collaborative, and if at any point it's not going the way they want it to, to let us know, and we'll get back on track.
That I've never had anyone do that sounds, at first, rather unremarkable. Rationally, one would think someone who wanted to quit would be willing to take the steps they needed to do so, and that my company's training was designed such that we have the tools to meet people where they are and offer help to anyone. The truth is, though, that we're fighting against deeply-entrenched psychological structures that can even become a framework of their own. I've long-since lost count of the times I've heard someone say, "I just can't imagine my life with this drug." The brain fear withdrawal and will do just about anything it can to make sure that doesn't happen, so the routine behaviors of an addict can become akin to survival mechanisms, and calling them into question or threatening them (the behaviors, not the people) can provoke serious emotional backlash. I've been screamed-at, cried-to, accused of participation in numerous conspiracies and told my services are a complete waste of time more times than I could recount.
And not once has anyone said "Oh. You know, this call isn't working for me. Could we do something else?" I asked my supervisor, who listens to tons of these calls for compliance reasons, whether in all the calls he'd monitored, if someone had ever exercised their option to take the call in a different direction. He said once, maybe.
And this is Relevant How?
We all know that the best games are often the most immersive. They're the ones that let us forget we're sitting on the couch, eating nachos, and almost believe that we're building a city, winning a street fight, leading an army or even just on a farm, helping a friend harvest her radishes
. We forget that the story in which we're participating is imaginary, and the things we do within it only impact an imaginary world. Movies and TV work the same way, but rely on a well-scripted series of determined events, rather than interaction with the audience. These media trick our minds to temporarily adopt a different worldview, and to set aside our own presumptions. Yet without this subtle trick of cognition, the power of media to tell a story would be broken. We might appreciate the artistry of the moving images on the screen, and might even enjoy the hand-eye coordination needed to manipulate them, but we wouldn't get the sense of meaning or texture I imagine everyone who's reading this page right now has known at some point or another.
And once again, World of Darkness is being designed, from the ground up, as its own online context
As I've said before, what really interests me about this game is that what they're trying to build is a culture, a world-view, a complex series of rich interpersonal interactions, all through the mechanics and structures of a video game. Our human tendency to latch onto a worldview presented to us isn't a bad thing. It can help us see others' perspectives more effectively, knowing that kicking turtles and breaking blocks with your fists made sense while playing a game about plumbers, some how. I recall watching in horror as a friend played Katamari Damacy, how the lead character rolled up cats, dogs, people, and eventually whole cities, flung them into the cold vacuum of space and set them ablaze with atomic fire. (Okay, so I was playing Vampire: Bloodlines at the time, and thinking about the Humanity system of that game). By building awareness of the kind of world-view we've adopted unconsciously, we can start to make changes to that mindset, and in so doing, change ourselves into the kinds of people we want to be (more on that next time!!) It does have a dark side, however, as stated here, and other articles I've written. Just putting a controller in someone's hand and getting them to play for a little while, you can completely change the way they think about themselves, their moral decisions, and the consequences of their actions. That's power, and we'd best be careful how we use it.
Homework: Break the Context
We haven't done a homework piece in a while, have we? Okay: here it is.
Go break character.
Find some instance in which you're in a context (which is to say, all the time) and think seriously about what that context influences you to do. Then, try to do something else. I'm not asking anyone to get arrested or fired, but I am asking you to try stepping out of the comfort zone a little bit. Ask a complete stranger for a second date, of give them a thoughtful gift. Find a way to significantly break your routine at work or school (without getting kicked out of either). Offer to reach those guys standing around the Church of Scientology the secrets of the universe and their own mind. Notice to what extent it's easy or hard to push against the invisible curtain. Notice how strange it makes the world seem, if only for a few moments. The, kindly post below your experience.
And thanks, as always, for playing along.
Oh. One more thing: I mentioned running a game of sorts in the middle of June, and haven't forgotten about it. It'll be a pretty straight-forward trading game between players, with a bit of World of Darkness flavor for fun. I'm kind of finishing Grad School right now, but it'll happen in a couple of weeks. Cheers, all!