VIRTUAL HUMANITY PART ONE: DESPAIR
(This is an amended version of the original article which appeared on BXB before the server took a shit all over itself. Edits have been made in order to decrapify certain crappening elements and are not meant to hinder your enjoyment or lack thereof)
A couple of weeks ago, I vouchsafed the following unsolicited opinion to a stranger: “Art, it’s what separates us from the animals innit?”
The stranger quickly hurried away, which is unusual because loudly challenging the opinions of drunken strangers is what make our English public houses the vibrant and thrilling places that they are..
If the stranger had really put some thought into it, he might have argued that I was talking bollocks. Marine ecologist Carl Safina would certainly have agreed – in a recent TED lecture he recounted an example of a man watching dolphins in an aquarium whilst smoking a cigarette. One young dolphin observed him for a while before returning to its mother to nurse. Later on, the dolphin approached the man and spewed out a cloud of milk which resembled smoke enveloping the dolphin’s head. Safina said that the name we give for our own attempts to represent the world we see around us is ‘Art’. He further stated that, “There are capacities of the human mind which we tend to think are only of the human mind.”
If art doesn’t prove a meaningful difference between you and your pet budgie, then what does? In the early years of this century, there seemed to be a rolling argument in the gaming press about whether there had ever been a truly ‘mature’ video game. I’m reasonably sure that neither side of the debate meant that Sonic the Hedgehog should get his nob out once in a while, but rather that there should be games based around specifically adult situations. While Super Car Downpayment Simulator never really took off, many were drawn to the heady delights of waiting for a bus and the frolics of getting a job in Shenmue. Such a discussion seems old hat now, but if we can now agree that the market is awash with definitely mature content, can we similarly agree on a game with specifically human content? Of course, Ken the Budgie is going to struggle with Street Fighter V, but the Street Fighter series is one of the most animalistic of all – telling stories of simple, violent struggle. In this series of features , I’m going to ask whether there has ever been a game which speaks to human experience in the same way that any number of great movies and works of literature do. Do games separate us from the animals? Has there ever been a truly existential game?
Last week I placed my pre-order for This War Of Mine: The Little Ones largely because I was so enthralled with the first one. Reviews have been generally, but not uniformly positive. Our editor Ben noted that it’s not a game about ‘fun’ and that it could possibly be classed as edutainment. That some reviewers do not find TWOM:TLO to be an enjoyable experience does not surprise me in the least, and I thank them for their honesty. After all, the first game met with almost universal acclaim – surprising for a title which flies in the face of what has made gaming an enjoyable pastime since – well, since gaming has been a thing.
Moving away from the idea of a fun quotient, let’s do the science bit. Gaming is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, particularly games which involve some degree of direct competition. When you’re grabbing points, flags, territory of just bragging rights over another player, several things are happening within your noggin. Certain parts of the brain associated with pleasure, such as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex are activated and there is an increase in the release of dopamine. Dopamine is best understood as ‘the pleasure chemical’. Behaviour which elicits some sort of reward has a similar effect on the brain to amphetamines and encourages repetition of that behaviour which is why crack is (to borrow a phrase) very ‘moreish’, and it’s also why people play Call of Duty until their marriages collapse.
Do animals enjoy gaming? Search ‘games for cats’ on the AppStore and you’ll quickly be disabused of any notion to the contrary.
What, you thought I was joking?
The rewards of games are very meagre compared to – say – food and sex, which is why they fall into the category of ‘secondary rewards’. Yet, the pull towards secondary rewards can be as great as towards more fundamental ones which is why people occasionally drop dead because they played Warcraft to the exclusion of all other things. Yep, all that time you spent grabbing loot in Diablo III or stockpiling increasingly devastating weapons in Borderlands was having a similar effect on your brain as a rail of coke or a really good meal. However, This War Of Mine was (for me and others) not a pleasurable experience on that order of magnitude.
If you’ve played the original game, then I’m going to tell you a very familiar tale. Everyone in my house spent all their time crippled with depression or injury and I did terribly questionable things to survive, skirting an ever-present game-over scenario. Why did I persist in it? Because what the game does is dangle the carrot that X will improve if only Y can be achieved.
If I could get the doors secure then there’ll be less bandit raids.
If I make some animal traps, we’ll never go hungry again.
If I could get the house warm, no-one will get sick again.
It’s no spoiler to suggest that none of these things are true. Whenever you focus on one thing in TWOM (and TWOM:TLO) you’re neglecting something else. The game gets harder in obvious ways but in subtler ways too. To begin with you’ll find yourself scavenging from deserted buildings but later on the richest pickings come from places which are inhabited by downright unfriendly locals. Soon the choice becomes one of tackling the baddies head-on or pilfering from innocents. The latter option feels so awful because most players tend to make very moral choices when playing games (an examination of the choices most people made while playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead is proof enough of that), precisely because the game reinforces a normal internal narrative that we are essentially good people who want to do our best.
When you play TWOM, a great deal of pleasure is derived from hope. Hope that you’ll be able to accumulate the goods you need, that you’ll get better at fending off attacks and hope that you’ll make it through to the end of the conflict. Surely it’s hope then that differentiates us from the beasts of the field?
Disappointingly, that’s not it either. The ‘Reward System’ of the brain consists of more bits than it would be interesting to list. What’s important about the concept of ‘reward’ in neuroscience is that the harder someone works for something, the more they enjoy it and this is known as the ‘hedonic impact’. Doubly interesting is that this ‘enjoying’ is unaffected even when dopamine systems are blocked. Wanting is as enjoyable as having in this scenario, which might explain why a difficult game such as TWO-I’m sick of acronyms, which has limited possibility of any reward is still a pleasurable experience.
Animals know this too. Edward L Thorndike, rewarded cats who escaped a maze with food but found that even when he removed the possibility of food, they enjoyed escaping the maze. Try it at home!
Cats in a maze.
Yet, there are two aspects of TWOM:TMWRNJ which I believe do exemplify uniquely human qualities, and I’ve already hinted at the first: Hope in the face of certain tragedy. First time I played it, I genuinely believed that I was playing a typical Roguelike in that the only outcome was a death which – at best – I might be able to stave off for a while.
This is a game which will grind you down, thwart all of your hopes, present you with impossible moral conundrums and most likely the best you’ll get out of it is the Game Over screen. Yet, Roguelikes are big business, enjoying a massive renaissance on iOS in the past few years.
If you give a crawfish electric shocks every time it leaves a cave (and this experiment has been done), soon enough it doesn’t want to leave its cave any more. If you hit a cat on the head with a spoon every time it escaped a maze, it either wouldn’t bother or would only do so in order to wrest the spoon from your grasp and do you up like a kipper.
The second is the strangely edifying sensation of despair. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher opined that we should rejoice in our despair because it was proof that we were more than just physical matter. As nothing impermanent can suffer because it always has the hope of escape via death, then only the soul which can never die can suffer the “Sickness unto death” known as despair.
Yes, we hope in the face of impossible odds but even with that hope withdrawn, we persist regardless.
Does this make us masochists? I’d say not. My own doctor said – on the subject of smoking – that we overestimate fortune and underestimate tragedy. This is why we blithely smoke cigarettes which carry many high risks to health but also play the lottery with only a negligible chance of success.
It is a uniquely human trait to hope for the best when all else seems lost. It’s how Vincent Cochetel mentally and emotionally survived 317 days as a hostage of Chechen separatists, despite torture and seemingly-certain execution. It’s how people still go on living in places like Homs in Syria which now eerily resembles the ruins of Washington from ‘Fallout 3’.
Animals do not have the notion that they can end their own suffering through suicide, humans do and yet in the face of death, destruction and deprivation of liberty, the majority continue to yearn for a better day. This is the despair and humanity of This War Of Mine, something your budgie will never understand.