Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

Apr
09

I’m looking to start chronicling some teaching exercises and experiences with a view toward improving my overall teaching practice.

 

I teach into an introductory course on game studies, from a culture and design perspective.  Someone else has made the course and set the readings, and while I have a degree of autonomy in terms of going off script, I’m still playing to somebody else’s script.

 

We’re about to move from the theory component of the course into a more design lab oriented set of tutorials, which raised some interesting issues for me. Foremost, amidst all the talk about community and ideology and how games are cultural artefacts, we haven’t done much to give our students a concrete idea about what design is, or the many ways they could go about doing it. That’s more for the second semester course, even though we have a design assessment in this one. Institutional requirements, organisation issue, I’m not sure anymore.

 

I am in class with an hour to spare after going over the week’s material and all discussions seemed to be exhausted. I started teaching at 8:30 AM and two things that I remember about being a student in 8:30 AM classes were that staying awake was a herculean effort in itself, and the experience sucked. I opt for the gamble.

 

“OK, everyone, we’re here to eventually design games, so let’s talk about design, starting with everyday objects, and moving on to games.”

 

Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is an amazing resource for game designers, or anything designers, for that matter. A manual of user-centric design, it discusses the concept of perceptual affordances (stuff we can intuit that we can do with an object from looking at it), and how well-designed objects communicate these affordances to the user straightforwardly.

 

I work in my university’s newest (for now) building, a $60M hulk with a 6 star green energy rating and cheap furnishings. As it happens, I’m fortunate that the architects neglected user-centric design on virutally every door in said building. In the first week of class, students struggled with whether to push or pull on the door to enter it. Granted, the first class is 8:30 AM. Anyone could botch that at 8:30 AM, especially when the doors have identical handles on both sides, and the hinge is only visible inside the room.

 

From inside the room you can figure out, by looking at the hinge, that you pull on the door to leave the room. From the outside, you are clueless.

 

“We’re sitting in a 60 million dollar building with a 6-star green energy rating and a deliberate design, except for every door on this floor, each of which is terribly designed. Let’s gather around the door to our room, figure out what the problems with the door are, and take a walk around the floor looking at other door designs.”

 

It’s 9:30 AM and a bunch of students who were laying head-on-desk got up and thus began one of the most animated discussions around our door. Students suggested things like putting a metal plate on the outside of the door to signal that you needed to push it from that side, but also noticed that that would interfere with the handle/locking mechanism that presumably was worth preserving. Another suggestion was to put a horizontal bar with a big, horizontal button on the door that would control the latch. Brilliant. When we see a button, we know to push on the button rather than to try to pull it. Problem solved, well played.

 

Someone also suggested labelling the door with push/pull on the given side of the door. In response, we walked down the hall to another door, with a long vertical u-shaped handle, that was labelled push/pull on each side. One student rebutted that people screw up opening the door frequently even if the door is labelled that way, and yet another added that if we go by the idea of perceptual affordances, it shouldn’t have to be written down, we should be able to tell just by looking. There were similar ideas for fixing that door – the metal plate for pushign was fine since that door didn’t have a lock/latch. The horizontal push button bar would also work there. Making the hinge more visible could work. All sorts of solutions, that students were all too eager to throw out.

 

To move on to games, we looked at a Snakes and Ladders board. To my amazement, some students had never played this game, so the discussion of the board’s affordances was particularly interesting.

“So what are the affordances of the game’s board?”

“There are numbered tiles so you know how to progress.”

“Good! And…”

“There are ladders and snakes on some of those tiles that have some effect.”

 

The actual effect was suddenly up for debate. One student offered the following. The ladders are for climbing. If you land on the base of one, you can climb up to the top. If you land on a snake’s head, it eats you and it’s game over for you. And, in terms of expectations, that makes more sense than sliding down a snake.

 

We looked at an image of a Chutes and Ladders board, which actually goes a long way toward solving this problem of perceived affordances. It was the first Google Image Search result for that, and was from a relationship advice website proposing a more erotic version of Chutes and Ladders. Oops. It looked like this:

 

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Chutes are more perceptually intuitive than snakes to conjure up the image of downward motion. So Chutes and Ladders is more communicative of its perceptual affordances than Snakes and Ladders is. There was a separate discussion about how the text on the tiles was very poorly communicative. Who kisses who on the neck? Who gives and receives the massage? My choice of what?

 

When stalled out, I was somewhat fortunate that the university gave me awful doors to work with. When one poorly designed door closes, a good discussion sometimes opens.

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Nov
09

On the urging of my primary PhD supervisor, I’ve started reading Henri Bergson’s 1899 essay collection, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which is available via Project Gutenberg. I’d read some of the (45th edition, 1938) Felix Alcan French copy at the University of melbourne library, and then switched over to the English translation when I realized my interlibrary borrowing privileges lapsed again. To acclimate myself to writing again after not doing very much post-submission, I’m going to jot down some notes and translations here, which might be of interest to some people:

“Que signifie le rire? Qu’y a-t-il au fond du risible? Que trouverait-on de commun entre une grimace de pitre, un jeu de mots, un quiproquo de vaudeville, une scène de fine comédie? Quelle distillation nous donnera l’essence, toujours le meme, à laquelle tant de produits divers empruntent ou leur indiscrète odeur ou leur parfum délicat? Les plus grands penseurs, depuis Aristote, se sont attaqués a ce petit problem, qui toujours se dérobe sous l’effort, glisse, s’échappe, se redresse, impertinent défi jeté a la speculation philosophique.” (1)

What does laughter signify? What is at the bottom of the laughable? What would we find in common between making a face, wordplay, a vaudeville exchange, a scene of fine comedy? What distillation would give us that essence, the same every time, that so many diverse products draw either their indiscrete odor or delicate scent from? The greatest thinkers, since Aristotle, have attacked this little problem, that always conceals itself under scrutiny, slides, slips away, rights itself, an impertinent challenge to philosophical speculation. (My translation)

In game studies, we have a tendency to think of play along these lines, as something that we know when we see, instinctually, but whose formal characteristics elude us. It’s fascinating to think about such fundamental parts of the human experience, even perhaps such linked ones as laughter and play, provoking the same philosophical anxiety.  How many others are there?

Exapanding on this a little, Bergson adds:

“Notre excuse, pour aborder le problem a notre tour, est que nous ne viserons pas à enfermer la fantaisie comique dans une définition. Nous voyons, en elle, avant tout, quelque chose de vivant.” (1-2)

Our excuse, to approach the problem, is that we don’t aim to enclose comic fantasy within a definition. We see in it, above all, a living thing. (My translation.)

The similarity to ideas of play is pretty striking here, where it’s not just a living thing, but a vital thing. From early observations of play in animals and infants, from both sociological and psychological perspectives (van Gennep, Piaget, Bateson) play is at obnce central to development but manifests itself in myriad, sometimes disconnected ways.

Bergson tries to pin down some fundamental characteristics of humour/comedy/what is laughable, and he says some really interesting stuff here, especially that:

1. ) Laughter is human – for us to be able to find things humourous, we have to ascribe human attributes to those non-human things. We might have laughed at Garfield hating Mondays because we hate Mondays, even though Garfield doesn’t have to go to work, and can content himself with gorging on lasagna and kicking Odie off a table. because our hatred of Mondays is projected by Garfield, it’s funny. Bergson also gives the example of a hat. The fabric of a hat, or its shape, isn’t funny save for how we project humourous meaning onto it. Here a picture is worth a thousand words:

The fedora itself isn't funny, the human qualities that a class of people who wear fedoras attribute to the fedora, and the folly that we project onto those people, however, is fucking hilarious.

The fedora itself isn’t funny, the human qualities that a class of people who wear fedoras attribute to the fedora are funny. The folly that we attribute to those people is fucking hilarious, and allows laughing at a decontextualized picture of a fedora to make sense.

 

Abstractly, I wonder a bit about object-oriented ontology and how it might relate to the human-centric approach to comedy that Bergson proposes. All objects may exist equally, but that has little bearing on the determinacy of their humourousness. Similarly, this ties into ideas around games and players, and the contested idea that games are artefacts completed by their players rather than stand-alone assemblages of code/art assets (I’m on the side of the former).

2) Laughter is accompanied by the absence of emotion:

“le rire n’a pas de plus grand ennemi que l’émotion.” (4)

Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. (My translation.)

We laugh when we’re relaxed, calm, indifferent. – when we’re not emotionally attached or attuned to situations, we have an easier time seeing the laughable in them. We have to temporarily put those attachments aside to laugh (see next quotation).

3) Laughter is social:

“Le comique exige donc enfin, pour produire tout son effet, quelque chose comme une anesthésie momentanée du coeur. Il s’adresse à l’intelligence pure. Seulement, cette intelligence doit rester en contact avec d’autres intelligences. […] On ne goûterait pas le comique si l’on se sentait isolé. Il semble que le rire ait besoin d’un écho. (6)

To produce its full effect, the comic requires something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart. Comedy addresses itself purely to the intellect. However, this intellect must stay in touch with other intellects. We wouldn’t taste the comic if we felt alone. It seems that laughter needs an echo. (My translation.)

 

How much is laughter like games in these respects?

Are games human? Either in that they are human-designed, human-played, or both (see Staffan Bjork and Jesper Juul’s “Zero Player Games” for some possibilities for non human-played games, as the idea of zero player games isn’t intuitive), yes, but do games function in a similar way to laughter and fedoras where we project what makes them game-like onto them above and beyond rules?

Are games accompanied by the absence of emotion? Sort of. The idea of some idealized play-state that we are capable of entering, be it immersion (ugh), attention (see: Ben Abraham), flow (Csikszentmihalyi), engrossment (Goffman 1974), engagement (McMahan 2003), incorporation (Calleja 2011), or whatever, seems to draw on this distancing ourselves from our emotional states and entering into that of the game. It’s not as if we’re suddenly tabula rasa, but there may be something to the idea that games can be most impactful in such circumstances as humour can.

Are games social? In so many ways, though they can sure be anti-social in great measure.

Feb
03

Last post, I wrote about the narrative of Super Hexagon, not that it has one, but the intensely subjective one that it enables. Between now and then, this happened:

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That’s the crescendo, the climax, it’s all denouement or trying to grind the global leaderboards from here. My experience of Super Hexagon, narratively rendered, has changed with me finishing the game per stated goals, unlocking all the achievements, and seeing the ending. The main narrative arc ends, and I’m surely not going to play nearly as much Super Hexagon in spite of the strange fact that it is, in its strange, high-pressure, rapid-fire way, a very relaxing, entrancing, experience to play it moment-to-moment once you hit a certain level with it.

Around the end of January, I grinded a lot of hours on the game to get to the point of being able to beat it. In the three weeks I’ve owned it, I clocked about 26, so averaging over an hour a day of Super Hexagon alone. And working my way through each level, a pattern emerged. Super Hexagon’s levels, to the best of my understanding, are pseudo-random. There are a number of different patterns that are arranged randomly. The first stage of any given level focuses on determining how to navigate a particular pattern, or where the screen spins really quickly to disorient you into making a mistake. Then, it’s a matter of drilling that solution into muscle memory and into time with the rhythm.

It’s a typical narrative arc of obstacle, training, overcoming, repeat six times. How I changed going through it is interesting to me, on reflection.

I wouldn’t say I’ve changed as a person or that Super Hexagon will change my day-to-day behavior, but there were some things that I noticed in a physical, embodied way. While I haven’t played it much in recent weeks, due to grinding Super Hexagon, I play a lot of Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition 2012. While a lot more complicated than Super Hexagon, one fundamental aspect of it is reacting with proper timing. When an opponent jumps at you, you want to delay your anti-air move to minimize the chance of their damaging attack trading with yours (unless you play a character that can combo that sort of trade into something else, which I don’t). My reactions had seemingly sped up, to the point that I was pressing the buttons for my anti-airs too early, causing them to whiff or lead to unfavorable trades. So, twitch reflexes seem to be better, timing seems to need readjusting.

In a psychological sense, I’m also struck by how Super Hexagon manages giving feedback to the player. You crash into so many walls, but it consistently felt like I was getting better at reading the patterns, that that next breakthrough was right around the corner, where I’d hit another milestone or beat my best time by 8 seconds to something of the sort. Even when performing awfully, there was that sense of constant improvement. I wish my PhD was more like that, it would have been way easier to write. It wasn’t about the points or the achievement nearly so much as the sense of achievement; the tasks Super Hexagon demands of its players are not easy, something candidly reflected in the difficulty levels of the 6 stages: Hard, Harder, Hardest, Hardester, Hardestest, Hardestestest. Surmounting the task, assimilating the game’s patterns and logic is its own reward. The euphoria and relief of clearing each stage, the comedown during the closing post-Hyper Hexagonest cinematic, and the rush of the moment-to-moment gameplay itself is something I hadn’t felt playing a video game in a very long time.

While Super Hexagon has gamified elements, high scores, a global leaderboard, achievements, it’s a game experience first. It’s about the present experience of gameplay, not the abstract thought of some future reward. It’s unabashedly that, it is refreshing, and it was the game that I needed at that particular point.

I’m coming to the end of my PhD, and I’ll be putting the Super Hexagon persistence to good use in hammering out the last bits of writing and editing.

Jan
28

Lately I have been playing a LOT of Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon (2012) on PC. I’ve been enjoying it immensely since I turned VSync off and the input lag was reduced by a huge margin, making the controls feel as smooth as they need to be in a precision reflex/rhythm game. I’ve been showing it to others when I get the chance, and people have been very quickly won over by the challenge and simple gameplay. It’s a matter of less than a minute before most people establish surviving a mere 10 seconds as their goal, immediately mashing the start button when they pilot their avatar-triangle into a wall, and they become engrossed.

Learn about Super Hexagon here.

One of my housemates has just returned from Canberra and a friend of hers has come to visit. My other housemate got him to try Super Hexagon, and their conversation turned to them looking up the Youtube video of Terry Cavanagh beating the game’s final level Hyper Hexagonest (difficulty: Hardestestest), and the game’s ending cinematic. This friend asked, “wait, a cinematic? Does Super Hexagon have a story, now?”

See the video in question here, (spoilers? or not?)

I’ve given this some thought since then, because if you’ve spent any time in game studies, you’ll be attuned to the ludology/narratology non-debate and the hair on the back of your neck will stand on end when ontological questions about games or a certain game come up, like this. And the more I’ve come to think of it, the more Super Hexagon seems to defy our (game studies discipline’s) traditional understanding of what games are.

So, the ludology/narratology thing. In super-basic, reductive summary, a bunch of game scholars, mostly in Scandinavia, decided that there needed to be a formalist approach to game studies as a field, otherwise it would just be colonized by literature/film/media departments. The unique thing about games is the interactivity that drives gameplay, so the disciplinary approach to games need to be shaped by that one unique thing. A bunch of media tell stories, but they’re not interactive in the same way, or at all, arguably.

One zinger that came out of the debate was Markku Eskelinen responding to Janet Murray’s reading of Tetris as a narrative game. Murray views Tetris as a metaphor for corporate American life – the constant bombardment and build-up of tasks (1997, p. 143-144). In that sense, Tetris is communicating a narrative, or, perhaps more accurately, enabling one to be interpreted by its players. For a formalist, this shouldn’t be so weird, if we take, for example, Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky’s notion of what art is; “a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important” (Shklovsky [1917]2007, p. 5). So it shouldn’t matter if the game is a formal set of rules and designed interactions if we experience it as a narrative, at least in some formalist appraoches.

So it might be a bit questionable when Eskelinen argues that Murray is projecting her own favoured meaning onto the game, which is subjective, suspect, and uninformative about what makes Tetris a game or an engrossing, effective one:

[Murray is] quite content to interpret this Soviet game as “a perfect enactment of the over tasked lives of Americans in the 1990s – of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.” It would be equally far beside the point if someone interpreted chess as a perfect American game because there’s a constant struggle between hierarchically organized white and black communities, genders are not equal, and there’s no health care for the stricken pieces. Of course, there’s one crucial difference: after this kind of analysis you’d have no intellectual future in the chess-playing community. Instead of studying the actual game Murray tries to interpret its supposed content, or better yet, project her favourite content on it; consequently we don’t learn anything of the features that make Tetris a game. The explanation for this interpretative violence seems to be equally horrid: the determination to find or forge a story at any cost, as games can’t be games because if they were, they apparently couldn’t be studied at all (Eskelinen 2001, online).

As for Murray’s claims about Tetris as a narrative game, they’re certainly counter-intuitive, especially from a perspective about authorial intention. It’s highly doubtful that Alexei Pajitnov intended for Tetris to be read as such, as Eskelinen points out. Like with literary theory, we need to have a way to determine what a good versus a bad subjective reading of something is.

It was always a false dichotomy. I’m far from the first person to argue that role-playing games, for example, need to have both the story and game elements firing at once. There is no neat division in the genre, and there isn’t for all games. It’s not helpful, and it’s never been helpful except as a historical curiosity, the way that we look at the interesting ways in which the old philosophers were wrong. We can learn from that.

Enter Super Hexagon. It is a time-attack game. It is distilled arcade-style fun. It is fiendishly difficult. It has essentially one rule amid a few dynamic processes; triangle meets wall equals game over, try again. No story, just a running clock. The ending cinematic doesn’t neatly conclude the narrative that Super Hexagon doesn’t have. The game doesn’t tell you a story, it makes you live through one. How you faced adversity and overcame it, eventually. The plot consists of the perilously close calls that you went through, and the vastly many more near-misses on your timing or input that send your avatar careening into a wall, the times that you were tempted to hurl your controller in frustration, and the times that you did exactly that. The hundreds of times where you failed and mashed the start button to get back into the game as fast as possible. You internalized pseudo-random patterns that the game etched into your brain as though the wise sage initiated you into esoteric wisdom from holy scrolls. The tantalizing goal hung just out of reach until you finally attain that milestone of surviving the level for one minute after myriad attempts, and you feel immediately satisfied and excited to continue. Your game play is the plot, and your character development is the narrative arc. It’s your story, you’re the star.

Super Hexagon doesn’t tell a story on its own. It enables you to form your own story of how you experienced Super Hexagon. Maybe Janet Murray meant something like that, but Tetris is a different game and a different story…

In London, a Super Hexagon tournament is held. Players have 90 seconds, and until the end of the current run when that time has elapsed, to rack up the longest timed run of the game’s first and easiest level. Another fundamental idea of how game studies traditionally looks at games gets smashed.

Roger Caillois proposed a taxonomy of four types of games; agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry, and ilinx (vertigo, or sensory destabilisation) (Caillois 1961, p. 23). Sometimes, the categories overlap, though some categories do not mix. Agon and ilinx are two such categories. Competition implies peak performance on a level playing field, sensory destabilisation implies deliberately inducing a state where you are not performing at peak.

Obviously, it’s a different story when you’re looking at measuring who performs the best in spite of sensory destabilisation, though I haven’t seen any particular mention of this particular combination in games literature, probably because there haven’t been many games designed around this sort of messing with spatial perception that have been designed with competitive modes in mind. Alternately, the sensory destabilisation is an immediate pleasure of game play, whereas the competition comes after, tournament or otherwise, as players compare scores with their friends and others after the fact.

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Image originally from Kill Screen (http://www.killscreendaily.com/media/uploads/super-hexagon_549027629_ipad_03.jpeg)

Super Hexagon doesn’t just challenge us to avoid a non-stop, rapid-fire barrage of oncoming walls. It challenges us to consider what games are and to create our story of our experience with it. It is available on Steam, iOS, and Android.

References:

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Trans. Meyer Barash. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.

Eskelinen, Markku. “The Gaming Situation.” Game Studies, Vol. 1, Iss. 1. http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/eskelinen/ , accessed January 29th, 2013.

Killingsworth, Jason. “An eSport in waiting? Super Hexagon storms the London bar scene at Wild Rumpus.” http://www.edge-online.com/features/an-esport-in-waiting-super-hexagon-storms-the-london-bar-scene-at-wild-rumpus/ , last accessed January 29th, 2013.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.”  Trans. Lemon, L. and Reis, M. Ed. Martin, T. www.culturalagents.org/int/biblio/pdf/shklovsky.pdf . Uploaded January 9th, 2007, last accessed July 28th, 2011.

Nov
05

Another local games PhD student, Brendan Keogh, has been working on a long-form piece about Spec Ops: The Line for some time now. In addition to the PhD, he’s slammed out some 50,000 words on, ostensibly, every aspect of his game experience. He just announced that this is going to be released on November 14th as a DRM-free PDF, costing $3 for purchases in the first month and $5 thereafter via Critical Distance.

 

I have a hard time thinking of anything remotely like this in a published format. There are books on videogames and theory, your stuff of highly variable quality along the lines of Halo and Philosophy (which academic buddy Felan Parker has a good piece in), game guides, companion art books to games, but a blow-by-blow account of a whole game, from design decisions to affective results?

 

Is there a market for this sort of thing? I don’t know, and neither does he, but I want there to be one. Whether I write in it or just read what others do, deep and holistic criticism of videogames should be encouraged. It’s long been time for us to say more mature things about videogames. That’s something I want to encourage and possibly even be a part of. That’s why Brendan Keogh is getting my three bucks.

 

(I’ve been debating doing a lengthy companion piece to both versions of La-Mulana, but I’m not sure I’ll do this while still having the PhD to do on top of it.)

Sep
21

Only a few years ago, in what felt like another life, I studied theatre. Being mostly interested in storytelling and its operation, I mostly studied dramatic literature. In the course of my bachelor’s degree, I took something on the order of seven courses on Shakespeare, and read one Molière play. Sure, there was more than just that, though like most traditional universities, the curriculum suffered from white-male canon syndrome, that being a tragedy of politics and theatre history rather than just the wistful way things were. Later theatre studies elsewhere redressed this fact somewhat with deeper looks at contemporary sub-altern theatre, for lack of a better phrase at the moment.

The whole theatre studies enterprise was haunted by Shakespeare’s ghost. In darker moments I wondered at what fetter tied the spectre of the Bard to this earth – what task he had left undone, or what vengeance he had yet to wreak on us aspiring playwrights, actors, artists, critics, and theatre fanatics before he could finally find his last, peaceful rest. In brighter moments, when his verse was easier to parse and essays were no longer coming due, I saw the haunting differently. I saw it the way my professors did and tended to urge us to. Shakespeare’s ghost walks the Earth because his plays are universal and timeless. They deal in universal themes, with a universal standard of quality. This was the theatre studies enterprise’s fundamental axiom, it’s sine qua non. Without Shakespeare’s ghost, we were adrift in a past of ever-dated plays, with a future of an unpredictable torrent of vastly more subjective creative output ahead of us. There was more stuff that was, and more in the pipeline, than anyone could preserve, catalogue, sort, respond to. Shakespeare gave us that one fixed point we needed. We may not have been especially interested in Shakespeare, my cohort and I. Well, I was, as were some of them, but surely not all, and not all of us to the level of commitment to take 7 classes – more than a minor – on just the one man and his works, and adaptations thereof. Regardless, we had some seemingly steady ground to stand on thanks to Shakespeare.

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Richard III: What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. (Image and caption from Caitlin Griffin’s “Ghostly Shakespeare” 2010)

More than just being universal and universally good (ignore either Titus Andronicus or critical opinions of Titus Andronicus, widely regarded as a pulpy, trash play, on this one,) Shakespeare was timeless and ahistorical (but for his histories).  His objective value was to be seen in how it dealt with the fundamentals of the human condition. Macbeth and Hamlet, ambition and revenge, what widespread and common things these are! Shakespeare was cross-cultural. Every society has this stuff! Shakespeare offered the hope of a universal theatre to appeal to a universal audience with the possibility of a universal ethics.

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The Bard is hip with the times, maaaan. All of the times, and all of the places.

 

One story from a later stage in my studies, at a different university:

A famous director, I think it was Peter Brook, took his Shakespeare company on tour in rural Africa to put on minimalistic, lo-fi productions of Hamlet. For some reason, I think the audience were Masai in either Kenya or Tanzania. Maybe the play itself is translated, maybe pantomimed. Maybe they watch Claudius fill Hamlet Sr.’s ear with poison, maybe they watch him sleep with Gertrude, maybe these events are implied, maybe it’s experienced through dialogue. They definitely watch Hamlet Jr.’s angst-filled deliberations about how and when and whether to kill his murderous, usurping uncle. They crack up laughing. The actors are put off but the show must go on, and it does. The play finishes with (SPOILER ALERT) the Act V bloodbath and Fortinbras arriving to take over Denmark and tie up the play’s action.

Peter Brook, the great director, is surprised at the disjuncture between the performance’s tone and the audience’s perspective of what the performance’s tone is. Through an interpreter, he asks what the audience found so funny. The answer: all of Hamlet’s (in)action. Hamlet’s deliberations are so cowardly, so alien, and so buffoonish that the play is akin to slapstick.

I love this anecdote for many reasons; perhaps most of all that it speaks to the wonderfully generative space of potential surprises that live theatre performance creates. Live theatre can obliterate even its own primary assumptions.  This play is a tragedy. It is universal. It is those things until it suddenly is not before the final curtain call.

Tonight I went to see a production of Molière’s The School for Wives (L’école des femmes) by a primarily Shakespearian company. Oddly, this makes the last two live plays I’ve seen Molière pieces, having caught an off-off-Broadway performance of Tartuffe on a recent, but not recent enough for my theatre-going tastes, trip to New York. In each of these plays, it was actually really easy to see the ways in which they hadn’t aged nearly so much as their 350 or so years. (Tartuffe is 350 years old on May 12th, 2014!) Consequently, I wondered, in spite of what a staggeringly bullshit question in view of the above this is, who the more universal playwright is, Shakespeare, or Molière.

Tartuffe is a play in which the title character plays a con-man posing as an itinerant monk who takes in the head of a wealthy household with his sham piety in order to swindle him. It was a play that skewered religious hypocrisy and praised the (relatively) secular State to the point that the Roman Catholic Church condemned and tried to ban it. Molière, however, had the backing of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had a tight grip on power and was looking to curb Church influence at the time anyway. Especially when politically convenient, the show must go on.

In an election year, it’s pretty hard not to see this taken to a broader political level.

The School for Wives is a bit different. Arnold wants to get married but is paranoid about his reputation being wrecked by his wife cheating on him, something he disdains the husbands of Paris for being too acquiescent to. So, he makes an arrangement with a convent to have the nuns raise an orphan girl free of outside cultural influence, Reason, and worldliness for him to marry. He believes that without any knowledge of how women act, she will never act like them and cheat on him. A series of spectacular backfires ensues.

Then, as now, the perceived threat of rising female power gave rise to common enough views and characters to skewer. With modern feminism and the Internet as a handy repository, we can see similar paranoia about women and sexual relations as the paranoia of cuckoldry in Molière’s age. A quick glance at Reddit might reveal undercurrents of male paranoia: The fear of being cheated on persists when trust is a scarce commodity, sure. Add to that the terror of being falsely accused of rape, or of having one’s sperm swiped from a used condom surreptitiously in order for a woman to ensnare oneself into marriage via pregnancy. Molière’s Arnold character type still exists and is more histrionic than ever as a result of changes in the world around him. Skewering these kinds of men who still deserve it centuries after the fact, Molière takes on a visionary character in a way that I’m not sure Shakespeare does.

So I further wondered, even if there is no truly universal theatre, perhaps Comedy better approaches that (still dubious) ideal than Tragedy does. Rather than Aristotelian hamartia, the lofty tragic errors (or flaws of character in which one erroneously and stubbornly persists), Macbeth’s ambition, Hamlet’s paralysing deliberation, Oedipus’ stubborn belief in his own superior intellect, perhaps our mundane everyday follies are more culturally common theatre material. Then again, perhaps the Masai, or some other culture, would burst into bitter tears at Arnold’s predicament and we’re back at square one. Some gender role apologists also might, but that’s incidental.

These are half-formed meditations, so perhaps there isn’t really a conclusion as such. As with Peter Brook, perhaps we can say that rather than claims to universality and transcending the boundaries of time, or, even paradoxically alongside them, some major aspect of theatre’s beauty and aesthetic pleasures resides in its cultural and historical contingence: for the theatre is the script, is the performance, is the reception, is the reflection after the fact. Theatre’s sine qua non is not just Shakespeare’s ghost whispering to our subconscious mind in iambic pentameter. It is our conscious conversations with playwrights live and dead; actors, artists, critics, and theatre fanatics; family, friends, and strangers bound to us by the shared community of being a part of a performance.

Mar
27

For the uninitiated, Stelarc is a Cypriot-Australian performance artist whose work focuses on the relationship between the body and self. In a similar vein to Donna Haraway, Stelarc’s works, involving suspensions, prostheses (most famously, his Extra Ear, which is grown out of his adult stem cells and implanted in his arm) and robotics, address the relationship between our bodies, technologies, society and self. For Haraway, we’re all already cyborgs, thanks to the insinuation of technologies into the fabric of our everyday lives. Vaccinations, for example, operate in the background. Is that really any different, technologically speaking, than the cyborgs of Terminator, The Ghost in the Shell, or Deus Ex? For Stelarc and Haraway alike, the body as the seat of identity is something to be transcended. For Haraway, this leads to the sweeping away of gender as a meaningful category, and its related norms with it. For Stelarc, technologies lead to a future in which the human being is anatomically alterable, in ways that we can neither “program nor predict”, for better or worse. (Hall 2010) If that’s the fundamental characteristic of human nature (alongside mortality, perhaps), then what?

The Suspensions exhibition, at the Scott Livesey Galleries in Armadale, Melbourne from March 7-31 of this year collected large documentary photographic prints of scenes from Stelarc’s suspensions, as well as video documentation of a suspension performed in the gallery to a limited audience with an intact installation scene, featuring a large overscale sculpture of Stelarc’s arm-with-ear-in-it:

Behind the sculpture there is a medical table with all the paraphernalia needed for the suspension.

Moreso than the video of the live suspension, Stelarc’s 25th since he started doing them in 1980, and his first since 1988, I found the photographs of previous suspensions (not reproduced here) to be confronting (which was both in line with my expectations and a good thing). In a suspension, Stelarc inserts shark hooks into his skin and is then hoisted up above ground to dangle, naked, suspended, in a dynamic equilibrium. These happened in gallery spaces, above city streets, in elevator shafts, and on a wooden platform hundreds of feet off a remote part of the Japanese coastline. The act of suspension is performed in order to transcend the obsolete body, to enact his ideal of the body as a field of possibilities outside of social space, not prefigured by social expectations for what bodies are and what they can and should do. Simultaneously, he also put his particular body on display in a specific, social, art context to represent that.

I found this overall message confronting and difficult, stemming from body image issues that make it very difficult for me to imagine my body as a blank field of possibilities without giving up some part of my identity that I don’t feel comfortable giving up on those terms. The body-image and identity struggles that I’ve had since my own body was altered through the surgical removal of a cancer-afflicted testicle make it very difficult for me to see the body and identity as abstract, disconnected fields. I can hardly begin to imagine transgender people, for example, having a much more difficult time not only transcending their bodies, but feeling that it is or should necessarily be a possibility, considering how much their identity and personal/bodily history are interlinked and what the social/normative stakes are for them.

I fear that I’m mis-characterizing Stelarc’s work here somewhat, but I’d like to add a second photo from the exhibition, the over-sized sculpture of Stelarc’s arm post-suspension, when the shark hooks were removed from his skin. Two drops of blood fell from his thigh onto the sculpture at that point, which I took as a sign of the body’s finitude. Transcendence isn’t permanent. The answer to Shylock’s question from The Merchant of Venice  still holds: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes. And then what?

 

References:

Hall, Gary. 2010. “Para-site”, in The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age, ed. Joanna Zylinska. Continuum, London and New York.

 
May
05

I haven’t been writing terribly much in here or in general as of late. The big bit of academic news is that I’m back in school and have started up my Ph.D. at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. The field is a bit interdisciplinary and tenuous, but so it seems to go these days. I’m doing work out of the department of Multimedia on Ethics and Game Design, and it should make for some exciting stuff once I actually have enough written to post.

I also want to add that a big influence on my research and theatrical praxis died over the weekend. Rest in peace, Augusto Boal, and may you see less oppression here on Earth if you should happen to look down.

Mar
02

Today, I caught a segment on CBC Radio’s The Point dealing with a “movement towards games as art” in the marketplace and among gamers.

It may be an interesting listen and it is available at this link. It’s part 3 of the show.

It didn’t seem to say anything particularly new, and in some ways, the games listed as examples weren’t all that pioneering. These games were more experiential, more paideia driven, but it’s not that they were particularly the first to do so.

Regardless of whether Flower’s gameplay resembles fl0w’s, for instance, as a gamer, I like the notion of games being credible as art and I welcome this radio story on that level.

Dec
11

A number of presentations/keynotes (not including my own) at Meaningful Play were videotaped and are now viewable here .