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.

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