Hero’s Journey and Computer Games

We learned from Campbell that hero story encodes a natural mechanism for change and rebirth, that is part of us as human beings. Do people really use this mechanism nowadays? When I look back on my life, I think I should’ve used it more. Let me give an example that hopefully anyone who spends too much time with a computer can relate to:

We expect to solve our problems incrementally. If you want more friends, you add them one by one on facebook. If you want to lose weight you go to the gym. If you want to level up in a computer game, you slay monsters one by one until you get stronger. It is amusing how Nietzsche’s quote “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” began to mean something so trivial for computer age kids. It was intended to mean “you should go on a hero’s journey and almost die to return stronger”. But all we see is a straight line with little coins of positive reinforcements scattered around – that is so not a hero’s journey!

We expect to solve our problems by going in a straight line from where we are now to the solution. And it comes as a surprise when somebody around us manages to solve the same problems better by going in a circle: making a mess out of his own life and then emerging successful. We certainly don’t expect that to happen to us. So when we get stuck on our straight line, when there’s no coins of positive reinforcement, and instead we feel bad and life seems unfair – we give up. We don’t accept calls for adventure because it seems to us they are distracting us from the straight line of our lives.

I conclude with a set of examples, as promised. Do you recall a story of your friend who:

1) Met his love by getting awfully drunk?

2) Improved his grades after coming back from the army?

3) Was too shy to dance so someone has to drag him in?

4) Passed an exam week without sleep on energetic drinks?

5) Got around bureaucratic rules by being nice and pitiful?

6) Stood up to bullies, got beaten, but was never bullied again?

Note that the above is hard for a certain group of people: those “who spend too much time with the computer” for some reason. My claim is that socially awkward people (including myself) are less prepared to set out on a hero’s journey than average. One of the reasons being that e.g. computer games give us the wrong idea of how to achieve success. There are some indie computer games with a genuine hero’s journey though, and less transactional interaction with the world. In fact, even popular titles like Final Fantasy tended to have enough character development for 10 hero’s stories! Maybe it’s just that I never completed a sufficient portion of the game to see the hero’s story unfold, like in Morrowind for example.

Anyways, the fact is that it takes too long (and sometimes forever) to see the end of hero’s journey (“master of both worlds”) in most of western computer games, as well as >70% of TV shows and anime that have >20 episodes . So the hero’s journeys that we perceive lose their completeness, and we indeed forget what they should be.

A study on consumer society (unfinished)

(picture courtesy to an undergraduate project “What are people really wearing?”)

A society involves a lot of agreements between people, and oftentimes we forget the actual reasons these agreements are in place. Like for instance, why people wear clothes. There’s an interesting conspiracy theory behind it, as presented in an anime Kill la Kill. Yet the common wisdom is that these agreements do not come from a conspiracy theory, instead they are posed as the definition of what society is. I feel that’s not enough to define a society, one needs to introduce an extra level of structure: the processes and phenomenons that are sustained within the society by majority of it’s members. Like fashion: the agreement which clothes to wear itself changes over time, but the mechanism that puts such agreement in place is sustainable. One can say “a positive feedback loop”.

Before I set out to describe fashion and consumerism, as well as their alternatives, it is worth to spell out my goals. I feel strongly against consumer culture. I’ve noticed that my peers seem to live in the world where looks just have to comply with certain standards. Like: you should use a styling gel on your hair every day. If there are hairs sticking up from your head, that’s a reason to worry. Other thing that I’ve noticed is that it’s hard for me to watch hollywood movies. All of the actors and people on screen comply with fashion standards, and some actors are even the tail of the distribution of handsomeness. Even the comedies that are supposed to make fun of the norms, still have a lot of assumptions in place that are immovable. It is hard for me to watch teenage comedies because of how many things they “program” us to do, how much they tell us what our life should be like. It is crazy because comedies are supposed to be light movies to watch. How much do they program other people? Is it just me? Would my life be different if the comedies I watched as a kid didn’t tell me that happy ending = having a girlfriend that looks like a hollywood star?

Those are simple questions with no easy answer. About comedies – yes, it is likely that only I respond to comedies in such a surprising way. But the consumer society in general is, I think, a greatest harm to humanity. The amount of people hurt (though indirectly) by American culture dwarfs the number of people hurt by American bombs. So the goal is to have a clear understanding how to live in a society like that, and how to express clearly my beliefs by my actions. I am not really going to provide a global alternative – that’s too ambitious of a goal. I’m contempt with a local alternative – something a person can do, and explain to friends, and still fit in and have a successful life. Maybe even that solution, once implemented, will add a certain charm to a person. So let’s start with a detailed description of consumer society, with clothes and fashion as example.

Clothes

A technical reason to wear clothes, which will be a foundation for the society’s customs, is to keep oneself warm, clean, healthy, protected from sunburn. Shoes are to be able to walk far. That’s it.

Next society’s construct is the concept of shame. It’s a very powerful feeling, maybe even evolutionary imprinted into us to make violating rules costly. There’s a lot to say here, but let’s just keep to the point of needing to wear clothes that cover areas related to sex, because sex is shameful. And the need to be dressed appropriately to the occasion, i.e. not stand out from everyone else, because that is shameful as well.

The third step is a concept of beauty. We like to put effort and resources (money) into clothing that looks new, shiny and colorful… that’s basically it for the evolutionary structure of the society.

Now comes in fashion. We like to put even more money into clothes that are trendy/ make us look sexy. One can say that clothes were used as a discriminant between classes of society, so having clothes of a higher group makes us feel better. One can also say that looking like an idol (a role model) is part of imitating the idol and makes us feel better. But I feel like things are even more messed up, so before we describe why fashion works in detail, let’s back off and discuss how we even know what is beautiful.

Beauty training.

We expect it not to be genetically encoded. Instead, the taste is something that you train. In adolescence, the teenagers “discover” their attraction to opposite gender. I assume that the specific details that are deemed most attractive are chosen from the pool of what’s around, but not easily available to look at. Like for boys, rare commercials of bikini swimsuits somehow made a woman in bikini an ideal of attractiveness. But then, there’s a general taste, like if you have to answer what’s your favorite color …

Structuralist and Post-structuralist analysis of survey below

First of all, one may argue with each of the opinions that responders voiced in my survey. This is not post-structuralist deconstruction yet, but it is a place to start. The scary terms in the title will be defined shortly.

  • “Grad students with minimal income and no family” – there are tons of professions that live basically on minimal wage, unless you hit the jackpot. Music journalists, movie actors, standup comedians, aspiring writers, software engineers and traveling salesmen. We’re in a good company. A structuralist approach will claim that feelings of people in all above groups are essentially the same, but more on that below.
  • “Talking to people … not… interesting. If they come and talk to us, of course we would keep the conversation” – there’s an inconsistency right here! This is more of a deconstruction – we find flaws in the text by careful examination of it, not even bringing in external evidence.
  • “A movie star!” – is an interesting substitute for real people who have to struggle with real problems, maybe very different from ours. It is somehow easy to think about movie stars.
  • “You meet a lot of people when you’re young, but then it shrinks to your coworkers and friends.” – that’s only true for introverts, as another voice pointed out.
  • “We can’t talk to people – in one minute we’re back to talking science.” – that’s just a TV trope, we’re not actually like this.
  • “There was a sci-fi book” which was obviously intended to be popular among scientists, thus exploited the stereotypical thing we can relate to.
  • “Extroverts are not in gradschool” – well, there was one right in that room, and the last two responses are from him.

The takeout message from the common sense approach is that grad students indeed perceive isolation from other sides of life, but are not very good at explaining the reasons for it. The attitudes fall into three categories: personal choice (this is interesting for me thus I’m here), born like this (I’m talented in this field not in others thus I’m here). The third category is not voiced easily, but shows up in the tone and details of responses: unfair rejection (they won’t talk to me so I’m here). Imagining that “a movie star won’t talk to you” is one of the examples.

Now lets look at the same text using structuralist tools. The term means for our purposes: we expect to find the same structure in the text as in other texts coming from seemingly unrelated sources. Or we split the text in pieces and use the templates already developed by famous structuralists for individual pieces of other texts.

Unfortunately we don’t have access to similar surveys made in closed groups like IT support, undergraduate students, students of other departments or less-known theater companies. We expect them to have the same uncertainty about how other people see them, the same societal pressure about low income and no way to support a family. They may have hard time talking to people who don’t know the inside jokes of their group.

What about monasteries? The book mentions a postapocalyptic version of them, where scientists are kept inside by force. In the real world it’s more of a conscious decision. The religious culture makes them hide away any regrets they may have about joining the monastery, so a similar survey may have only silence as an answer. Yet even our free and witty grad students hesitated about voicing their regrets, so the structure holds.

Let’s use a simple structuralist template signifier-signified to keywords in the responses.

  • “Hollywood” signifies “being born white and winning in random talent contest.”
  • “Gradschool” signifies “a way of avoiding real life for a few more years. And maybe, indefinitely.”

So what does “real life” signifies? It is just our impression about how other people are. And it is the key concept in structuralist psychoanalysis – from their point of view, all our problems stem from inconsistencies in our models of other people, and our desires for them.

The other is very flexible: its signifieds range from “people from other departments” to “Hollywood stars” to paternal figures of our subconsciousness. The famous discoveries made by structuralists are often about how the signified is shifting dynamically or even becomes a signifier-signified pair itself. An example of this kind of nesting is a flower on Valentine’s day which signifies just giving a flower which signifies passion. This kind of nesting is (arguably) in the other that responses mention. We think it signifies actual other people that we don’t know, but instead it signifies our model of them. The actual other people are likely not even aware that grad students living next block are feeling themselves isolated.

Another structuralist tool is to observe that a relation between the two parts A and B is the same as relation between C and D. It is very impressive for a non-math person to come up with a functor this way. I don’t see any functors in replies, maybe only between the surveys of different groups.

Finally, time for a Post-structuralist deconstruction. It basically starts with getting personal and points out that

  • I was concerned about forgetting how to talk to normal people, but not so much so after I stopped  dating a non-physics girlfriend.

can be read in two ways: is it the girlfriend that was leading to the concerns about how to talk, or the concerns about ‘nothing to talk’ led to stopping to date. In fact, the first thing that deconstruction notices is that the question “who we are” cannot be satisfactory answered. That is in the original books by Derrida. The self is impossible to pinpoint, there is always something unclear about the answer. We noted that indeed most of the responders hid their real feelings about the unfair rejection, societal pressure and a barrier before talking to other people (instead saying that it is uninteresting).

We assumed a working model of other but in fact it is all over the place. We would think of Hollywood stars instead of normal people, we wait for them to come talk to us, we can’t even explain how come we had a girlfriend in the first place! So a flaw in the imaginary model of other cannot by itself be our important finding – there are always flaws in one’s model of other, unless you talk to Sherlock Holmes.

Instead, our conclusion will be that there are easily falsifiable flaws in the way we think about our grad school, and for some reason our mind suppresses ways of thinking that may notice the inconsistensies. Like that there was an extrovert in the room. Note that the conclusion is on the meta-level compared to the “common sense” conclusion. We still do not know if it is a good idea to point out these inconsistencies to people, or it will just be irritating for them.

It is a museum where cool devices and things that work from different epochs are gathered

What crazy things am I gonna do if I get rich

I was considering what crazy things I am gonna do if I get rich.

The general idea is that after hipster subculture to be trendy, the next one should be nerd subculture. Only under the mask of nerd subculture people would learn that there are way more possible interests and hobbies, not only the ones that are considered ‘nerdy’. There are also some that are just not well know, you can only stumble upon them if you use your mind more. So how to foster this transition in the society, if I have some money to waste?

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