Monday, July 30, 2012

Arkham City, Silver City

Coming to terms with where I live.

I recently finished the videogame Batman: Arkham City

It was a fun game and an intelligent sequel to Batman: Arkham Assylum which one reviewer described:
“Hyperbole can be venomous to a review's credibility. Any insightful merit which a video game critique may possess seemingly goes out the window as soon as the reviewer starts dropping bombs like ‘best game ever’ or ‘literally mindblowing’ or ‘it will birth you anew in its magnificence.’ Perhaps it is because we've all heard these phrases -- save for that last one -- so many times that they've lost their currency with us.
“Rest assured, I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is unquestionably the best licensed game I've ever played. At the end of the day, however, that's a fairly low hurdle to clear -- it better reflects the game's quality to say it's one of the best stealth-action games ever made, and easily the best video game 2009 has had to offer thus far.”
I (and a large number of critical award presenters) agree with this review and share the reviewer’s temptation to engage in hyperbolic praise for a really great game. I will refrain and merely say that Arkham City is a sequel that more than does its predecessor justice. Not only does it continue with similar game mechanics, a larger map and a bit more of a sandbox style (which I prefer). It also poses, at its root, something of a philosophical question and one which interests me personally and politically; we recognize that “as a society” certain behaviors cannot be tolerated. Now, what those behaviors are and in what way they should be sanctioned are ever and always in contention, but that there are such behaviors is widely agreed. To that end we have tightly controlled panoptical prisons (Bentham, Foucault), invasive and unwanted psychological interventions and tax subsidized attempts to force acceptable behaviors from those who have little or no desire to conform to our strict social standards. Yet we know that
He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still
Which he may adhere to, yet disown,
For reasons to himself best known
(Butler, Hudibras, Part III, Canto iii, lines 547-550)
But what if we found another option? What if we simply gave those who could not live by society’s standards a place where they could, within the bounds of that place, create their own society with their own standards and follow their own rules?

Arkham City plays with this question. Video games are great for playing with questions. My former classmate, Georgina Gabor, has written that “play,” in the postmodern era is one of the most effective means of engaging with philosophical concepts. I would extend her argument with reference to video games and say that in the 21st century, that video games are the primary literary device through which serious thinkers can engage in ideas. The “play” which began in silly Atari and Nintendo button mashing has moved with improved media into spectacle, from there to literature and finally to philosophy. While we “play” the games we also play with ideas and thereby engage philosophically with a number of different perspectives in philosophical positions on subjects that matter to us.

Without giving any spoilers (I’m a story-based player and prefer to read critiques without spoilers) I will merely say that the question is considered through the eyes of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ra’s Al Ghul, Professor Hugo Strange and to a lesser extent through a number of well known Batman villains and allies. It is fascinating to see the “society” that develops in the game and the views on whether this approach is right, what is better, what constitutes society and how we develop social systems of behavior and morality. In ultimate postmodern fashion, the game is played through but in many ways the philosophical issues are left unresolved and the questions regarding the way that we socially deal with our deviants is thoroughly explored and unanswered.

Playing, in a video game world, is a relatively “safe” way of working through philosophical issues. Much like books, movies and television, the videogame creates an alienation from the philosophy it confronts where the concrete actions and consequences of living reality involve real pain. McLuhan wrote about media as being anesthetic and Burke talked about how even the act of speaking separates people from reality. So, while playing the game was a fun way to cycle through the issues regarding social deviants, living it is not so easy.

And that’s where I am.

I’m going to begin my third year teaching in the borderlands of southern New Mexico in a few weeks. As a libertarian with tendencies toward anarchism, I found the inclination against intrusion refreshing. I strongly feel that the less society attempts to limit the individual actions of free people, the more functional the society becomes. Relationships should be voluntary and mutually advantageous. Economies should likewise be uninhibited by external structures. Faith should be more a relationship with God and less a religion of “practices” and “dogma.” Those seem to be “common sense” truths around here, which is nice.

Still, I have to admit that I didn’t come here “by choice.” I was very happy teaching at a small, private, liberal arts college in the Midwest. There were lots of rules at that school, both official and unofficial. There were so many, in fact, that one was inevitably violating some rule or norm all the time. The community was small, poor and dirty, but God help you if the police found your lawn above three inches. Church was formal and separate from daily life. My shotgun had to be registered with the sheriff. There were rules, norms and codes by which people lived their lives and demanded others do the same. I have never really learned why that school neglected to keep me on, refused to renew my contract, but ultimately, in some way, I must have violated some rule spoken or unspoken and they chose to excommunicate me from their order. That exorcation created a ripple effect which largely excluded me from gainful employment in much of the country. I was a risky bet. If I violated the rules one place (though no one knew which ones), I might violate them elsewhere.

So, finally, I came here. I was hired to teach, write and think here. I do my best to like it here, to grow where I am planted, but to a large extent, I see Silver City as my own Arkham City. It is historically, the home of Billy the Kid. It is the place where Geronimo hid and took pot-shots at the US Army. It is where Kit Carson first saw combat. There have always been minerals here, silver, gold and now copper, but people didn’t really come here for the mines. There are minerals all over the place. They were driven here.

In pre-Columbian times, the Mogollon were driven here by tribes invading from the north. Then tribes from northern Mexico were driven north by the Mayans. Then the Apache, who rarely played well with others, were driven here by nearly every Native tribe and left to die. The Spanish who came here were the ones who could not handle the relative civilization of the more southern colonies. The Mormons came to where their polygamy would go unregulated. The other Anglos who came later were largely the social discontents who were forgiven their social trespasses in return for exile. Even today, the hippy, the biker, the “artist,” the survivalist, the homosexual, the pothead, the elderly who can’t afford Arizona or Florida and the general weirdo steadily grow the population in an economy that does not call for further influx of people. I was recently asked by someone why, with the mines faltering, people stay here. They stay here for the reason they came here, for the reason I came here, because this place, this town, would take them when they had nowhere else to go.

Oh, and it’s beautiful (that much is different from Arkham City, which is sublime, but not pretty). The mountains, the weather, the wilderness and the desert show me every day that God loves to play as much as any postmodern. Even going into my third year, I sometimes realized I have forgotten to breathe as I take in the beauty of it all.

So, that all sounds pretty good, right? We’re free to be you and me here and the weather’s great. Ninety percent of the time, it is great. Then there are the real problems. There is the crime; a chiropractor shot in his office recently, another murder in a nearby community, rampant graffiti, burglary, and petty theft all tend get to a guy after a while. There is also the poverty. One way to refuse to conform to society is to refuse to get a flippin’ job. The poverty is further exacerbated by rampant drug use and alcohol abuse. This kind of poverty is contagious and entangling.

And I leave this blog the same way that Arkham City ended. The concept considered. The question examined, but ultimately, unanswered.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

God Let's Us Down

Coming to terms with God letting us down.

I hear it often: “People will let you down. Governments will let you down. The economy will let you down, but God will never let you down.”  Of course, this person either has very little experience with God, doesn’t know what “let down” means, is lying, or (most likely) has heard the cliché so many times that he or she just feels like the must repeat it. I think that there are three reasons God lets us down, but they can be summed up in a single sentence: “He’s God and you’re not.”

The Book of Job Letdown

When I hear someone say “God will never let you down,” my thought is, tell it to Job. Job was faithful. Job was doing what he was called to do and was being blessed as he did it. Then he hit hard times. Suddenly, his kids die, his wealth dries up, he gets sick and his wife tries to get him to commit suicide. Then his friends come over and basically tell him that God doesn’t let people down, and so Job needs to work on his relationship with God. Job finally gets fed up with it and says that God was wrong to let him down. Finally God shows up and tells Job’s friends that they are wrong. Then God tells Job that Job is wrong; God can do whatever he wants. Then God blesses Job a lot. He gets new children (as if children could be replaced), builds his wealth back up and lives to be an old man with a lot of stuff. There, I just summed up a book of the Bible for you in a single paragraph.

Of course there were all kinds of things going on in the spiritual realm of which Job was unaware. God had put a hedge of protection around Job (Job 1:10) that prevented the normal calamities of life from assaulting him. When God took it away, it seemed like everything hit at once . . . because it did. It seemed like God had stopped protecting Job . . . because God had. It seemed that God had let Job down . . . because God had let Job down.

Yes, God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy and have grace on whom he will have grace and it is not our place to say that anything at all is “not fair.” Still, Job was COUNTING on God. Job knew that it was only by God’s blessing that he had gained and maintained what he had. Job was counting on that blessing to continue. Job had plans and dreams and goals all of which involved God continuing to do what he had begun in Job’s life. When God stopped protecting him, Job was let down.

A reader might point out that God eventually restored Job. That’s true. Job knew the whole time that he was going through this that he was going to be restored. He kind of thought it was going to be after he died (Job 19:26) but he was sure God would vindicate him. Knowing that God will eventually take care of us, possibly after death, does not keep us from being let down from time to time.

God let’s us down because we have bad motives

Job’s case is the most extreme one I can think of. Still, we are let down by God often to much lesser degrees. I remember being “let down” by God very young. It was a different time than it is today, and quite a few kids brought to school these plastic toy guns which fired rubber, suction cup darts (today students would be expelled for pretending a stick is a gun). I wanted one of those. I was aware enough of our financial situation to realize that approaching Mom and Dad for such an item would be unrewarded. Santa Clause was unlikely to respond to my requests because it was spring semester. So, I prayed. I prayed every day that when I came home from school, there would be a dart gun for me. I knew such miracles happened because I’d heard testimony in church and even seen it happen for my parents: there was a particular need, they prayed, the need was met.  I needed a dart gun, so I prayed for one. I prayed earnestly and fervently until the dart guns went out of style and all the kids were playing something else.  I only remember this because, even though they were now “out of style” so to speak, I still wanted one and asked for one for my next birthday and received it.

Praise the Lord! Your prayers were answered!
Six months too late.

I’m fairly certain that God letting me down, in this case, falls into the James 4:3 clause as to why I didn’t get what I wanted: “And even when you ask, you don't get it because your motives are all wrong--you want only what will give you pleasure.” I wanted a dart gun because everyone else had one and they were all enjoying shooting each other all over the playground. This is not to say that God doesn’t want us to have pleasure. He does. Sometimes he even gives us what we ask for despite the fact that we are asking from the wrong motives because he wants us to have pleasure. He is in no way bound to do it, however.

 When we don’t get what we are asking for because we are asking from the wrong motives, we feel like God has let us down. My motive for wanting a dart gun was so that I could “fit in.” What I didn’t realize at the time, however, is that God made me a unique person who was never supposed to “fit in.” I came to realize this several years later. I wanted another thing that many of my peers had (acid washed Jordache jeans?) and approached my Dad about it. When he asked why I felt like I needed them, rather than sturdy wranglers for one tenth the price, I explained that I wanted to be like other people. I remember quite clearly my Dad saying “You shouldn’t be like other people. You should be better than other people and when you can’t be better, you should at least be different because God hates a conformist.”

 My Dad was right. God was right. I don’t know about all conformists although I’m fairly certain I know some of the scriptures that were in Dad’s head when he said that (Ezekiel 11: 12, Matt. 5:48, Romans12:2, 2 Cor. 6:17, I Peter 2:9). I do know, now, however, that God did not call me to be like other people. I have a God-given personality that, even when abstracted by MBTI type, still only accounts for less than 5% of the population. I have been called to college teaching which requires a terminal degree, which fewer than 3% of the population of the US acquire. As far as people who work in my particular field (Communication Studies) the National Communication Association estimates that there are just over 8,000 of us in the whole flipping world. That is .0001% of the world’s population.  Oh, and I have a niche specialty within that discipline. God had a very specific and, yes, weird, plan for my life. And when I think that I asked God and my earthly Father to help me be normal, I realize that I would have been MISERABLE. Still, at that time, when I asked, and the answer was “no” I was very let down.

God has something else

Sometimes our motives are right and God is not removing his protection for his own divine reasons. Sometimes God just has something better for us. One of my favorite line from the film The Social Network is when Sean Parker’s character, played by Justin Timberlake tells Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars!” I think that God lets us down because what we want just isn’t awesome enough. Ephesians 3:20 talks about this God being able to do “exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we ask or think!”

I keep a list of things that I want. Part of the reason I started this is that my wife’s love language is gift giving, and if she’s going to spend my money on something for me, I thought, I’d prefer it be something I want. I kind of see that as a snotty attitude now, but I’ve kept the list going. It’s done a lot for me. First of all, when I see something new that I want I can check myself. Would I rather have that $20 video game now or that $200 projector for my classroom in a year? Here’s the thing that I didn’t expect when I made the list, however. Fully ¾ of the stuff on the list has come to me since I put it on there. The vast majority has come for free and not as a gift from my wife drawing on our joint checking account. Even when I did have to pay, it is always at a fraction of the price I list when I say I want something. It is like God saying “Letting you set aside $2000 to buy a used suv isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Getting you an SUV for $250” or “giving you a chance to buy that book isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Finding the book you want in the free box at the library” or "getting that paperback isn't cool. You know what's cool, getting the entire series in library editions for free." This stuff happens all the time.

Still, while we are waiting for what we want, and don’t get it, we feel let down. We want it and we want it now and if we don’t we’re let down.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Coming to terms with the past

"And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39 ESV). 

It seems so often that we long for what we have lost. We remember the deceased dog that willingly obeyed our commands. We think back to when our bodies could take more than they can now. We remember times and places with friends and want that back. We throw open the hood of our car and remember how easy it was to change a sparkplug before they changed things. We think back on our idyllic childhoods, or better yet the childhoods of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents and wish we could live in those moments. We look back on the price of gas, the price of rent, the price of bread and remember it fondly. 

I am as prone to nostalgia as anyone I think. Whenever I have change in my pocket totally one dollar or more, I'd remember how I'd scrounge for change each month as a child. I'd get up to a dollar and then go down to the local drug store and buy a Fantastic Four comic and a candy-bar. Now, I could maybe get the candy-bar. For many years I looked back on "college" as some kind of utopia. I loved late nights with friends, chatting, drinking and smoking. Now, I do not smoke, rarely drink and certainly do not stay up late with friends. Post-collegiate friendships are much more limited and contextual. I simply do not "hang out" anymore. 

I am also prone to nostalgize experiences I've never had. I imagine myself as a professor 50 years ago. I imagine myself discussing ideas in the faculty club, when there were such things, wearing wool suits and smoking a pipe. I imagine a time when one could, quite legally, hitchhike across the country and wish I could experience that. I even go back further in my mind and imagine a world where men worse suits of armor and settled legal differences with a trial by combat. In such situations, in my mind, I win.

And that is the problem with nostalgia. We remember the wins, the pleasures, the friends, the laughter, the joy. We forget that life sucked then too. In many ways, it sucked worse. Good history, in my opinion, reminds us of this. It keeps us from becoming too nostalgic and dwelling in a past that was not as beautiful as we see it. 

Good history looks at documents and reminds us of facts. I was a quite prolific poetry writer during my college days. While I remember the time as one filled with parties and friends, I can return to my old writings and see how excruciatingly lonely I was. How is this in keeping with my memories of the parties? I write about going out and coming back, alone, to my empty room. I may rarely go to parties now, but when I do, I always come home with my wife. While I may miss those close friendships, the loneliness I feel now is always mitigated by her presence. While I rarely have friends who "drop by" as they did in my 20's, I have a person who is just about always there. I wrote in one poem that I had gone three days without speaking a word to anyone. I have no doubt that it was true. I wonder what my wife would think of it if I tried that!

I love to take my friends who are so concerned about "crime these days" to the Department of Justice's Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics site which tracks crime since 1961. There was this little uptick of crime in the late 1970's and a considerably smaller one in the late 1990's (during that idyllic time when I was in college). Other than that, violent crime rates have gone down markedly or in a couple cases stayed the same since the 1960's. Groups like the Justice Research and Statistics Association track violence for even longer, and it is clear the violence in America is no where near the level it was in the 1930's and looking at their graphs it is difficult to even imagine how "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (to take Hobbes completely out of context) life was for people only that short time ago! 

Sometimes we get into this circle of nostalgia. We start dreaming of the good old days. One person makes a comment about how good things use to be. The next person believes it. Before long we actually start to believe that things use to be better. I recently read an article where a historian takes a polemicist, passing himself off as a philosopher, to task for talking about how the money plays such a greater role in the culture "these days." The article did not even cite Milton Friedman's Noble Prize winning proof that while the gap between rich and poor may be increasing, the gap between poor now and poor earlier is such that the poorest people today would be considered wealthy by the standards of 40 years ago. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting richer. They only see themselves as poor because they are comparing themselves to the rich. The starvation which was so prevalent in America has been replaced with an obesity epidemic among the very poor. Now, that's not a good thing and we should move toward a place where the poorest people can eat healthy diets. Still, we have to admit that obesity really is a step up from starvation. 

Now, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with raising an Ebenezer from time to time. It is important to remember the good things that have happened in the past so that we can repeat them. There is also a problem with being so focused on dreams of the future that we miss the awesome stuff going on right now. The problem lies in the idealizing of the past. It lies in wasting the present because we want to remember a past that is better than it actually was. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Classical Rhetoric of Video Games

Coming to terms with video games.

I think it is time to get a new video game for my PS3. I've played through the story-line of all of them that I have. So, I need a new one. I'm very open to suggestions, but I don't want to get a game I won't like or that I won't have time to play.

I like games that have a strong aesthetic component. That needs to have two parts to it. I'll call them delivery and style, because I am a classical rhetorician. First of all, delivery, the game needs to be visually appealing. I played the 8-bit games as a kid, and was never too impressed with video games. Then one day when I came home from graduate school and my brothers were playing Final Fantasy X. It was beautiful.  Watching the main character traverse through beautiful forests and sparkling waterfalls amazed me. I went home and blew student loan money and a PS2 that I am still paying for to this day. It wasn't the game itself, it was the beauty, the images, that almost haunted me. The delivery doesn't have to focus on the beautiful. As we know from Longinus, the sublime can be quite terrifying. I liked the more gritty and bloody imagery of Dragon Age II or Arkham Asylum every bit as much as I liked the sparkling waterfalls of Final Fantasy. Remember, this is a VIDEO game, and I need to be amazed by images.

Style is also important. Whether the game is an epic, a tragedy, a comedy a didactic, a jeremiad (that would be something I've never played), an elegy, a satire or whatever, the game needs to tell a fitting story. This is why I do not like "sports" games or "fighting" games as a general rule: "2-3-4 what are we fighting for?" I need to be invested in a reason to do what they are doing. Fighting without reason lacks catharsis and just seems mean. We need a good story. The story should not get too complicated, however. While I loved the graphics of Dragon Age II, the plot line got way too complicated for the way I play. I do not have time to play video games every day. When I do, it might be for an hour or so, and only get a good three hours in one weekend a month. I need to remember what I am doing and why. That is part of the reason I prefer nonlinear gameplay of the classic Role playing games, like most of the Final Fantasy series. Sometimes I have time to complete a quest. Other times, I need to be able to help my character just by gaining some experience points.

I also  need to have what the classical rhetoricians called good "invention," logic, emotion and character. We need coherence. No, it does not have to be fully rational. Magic and superhuman abilities are an important part of why we play. However, if you can fly one minute, you should not be falling the next unless some reason was given as to why you lost that power. If you can knock down one wall, you should be able to knock down similar walls. I need to be emotionally tied to the characters. While an aura of mystery for one or two members of the party are great, I am not going to care that much in the violent world of video games if someone I don't know dies. Finally, the character is essential. There are a number of reasons why video games based on movies are often so bad. The writers assume the characters of the movies and do nothing through game play to flesh them out. Sorry, not interested.

I also need to feel the arc of the story-line, what the ancient rhetoricians called "arrangement." The best arrangement I've found for video games are those that follow the traditional: equilibriumproblemdisequilibriumepiphanyclimaxconclusion model of the contemporary novel. That is not the only choice, and it can be great for us to think we're going to get resolution a few times and be wrong. On the other hand, constantly finding that the princess is in another castle eventually gets tiresome. Give me a beginning which foreshadows the middle which foreshadows the end, please. 

Those of you who are rhetorical scholars know I still have to talk about the final canon, memory. I don't want to have to take notes during a video game. I do, however, want the pleasure of seeing things come together. I love it when things suddenly make sense based on what I remember from earlier in the game. That is awesome.

So, that's what I'm looking for in my next video game. Any suggestions?