Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 34

Notes on becoming

Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of deeds is there.
Nirvana exists, but not the one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.
                                    --The Visuddhimagga

Buddhism teaches that there is no permanent individual self. There is no separation between self and other. Everything is interconnected. If we look at a flower we can perceive that it owes its existence to the earth, the sun, the clouds, the rain, and the gardener who tended it. And so, in a way, the entire universe has come together to produce this single flower. 

And since change is the only constant, this flower will eventually die. Nothing in existence is fixed. We are all in a perpetual state of "becoming." 

Sun-duality I've begun to understand that I value games because they function as meditations on becoming. When I step back and consider what's in this for me - why I play games and so eagerly invest myself in them - I believe it's because they provide authentic expressions of emptiness.

Beyond genre and mechanics, games can illustrate the essential meaning and validity of non-self, and they can provoke reflection on how we construct concepts and systems to make sense of a complicated world.

When I say 'emptiness,' I mean a state of mind characterized by simplicity and openness. It doesn't imply passivity or nihilism. The Tao Te Ching describes it this way:

We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want. 

We hammer wood for a house
But it is the inner space
That makes it livable. 

We work with being,
But non-being is what we use. 
 --Ch. 11, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Portal_mirror-2 Games provide an enveloping, risk-free space for such emptiness. My thoughts and senses always feel sharper when I'm playing, and I'm more attuned to the details of my surroundings. Very little escapes my notice in a game because I've emptied my mind of all external cares or distractions. I must be in this moment, right here, right now. Few other situations in my daily life require or enable such focused mindfulness. 

Non-self is harder to explain, but I'll try my best. I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

Games grant us many perspectives from which to see and experience human life. When I play as Link in a Legend of Zelda game, I marry my concept of Link, informed by many Zelda games, with the blank-slate silent hero that appears anew in every title. 

Link_Wind_Waker_3 This elfish swordsman may be the purest expression of non-self in all of popular culture. We commonly refer to him as Link, but he has no prescribed name. Each Zelda adventure summons a new hero, and we recognize him when he appears...but there is no persistent 'him.'

He is an 8-bit sprite; he is a polygonal young man; he is a cell-shaded boy. Link is many heroes. Nevertheless, when given the chance to name him at the beginning of each game, I always choose “Link” - which suggests more about my predilection for continuity and permanence than anything true about Link’s identity.

Speaking of identity, I recently finished L.A. Noire, which frustrated my desire to connect with my avatar, Cole Phelps. As the game wore on, I grew to loathe him and found myself conducting an internal Q&A with myself. Is this arrogant cop supposed to represent me? No. But I'm controlling him. Yes. Doesn't that create an unnerving disconnect? Yes. How do I feel about that? I don’t like it. Is that interesting to me? Absolutely. 

Phelpsava As a contemplation on self and non-self, L.A. Noire does something fairly outrageous. It deliberately distances me from 'my' character while forcing me to 'control' him. Consequently, the concept of ‘self’ is thrown out of whack. How do I make the right choice when my avatar can’t be trusted to properly execute my decisions? With each promotion up the ladder, why do I feel implicated in the detestable thing Cole Phelps is becoming? 

We often use the term ‘dissonance’ to describe a tension or clash between two disharmonious elements in game design, and L.A. Noire is full of such clashes. But in this case, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. 

Mlb_the_show_11_1 No such dissonance in MLB: The Show. Quite the opposite. In this game, I'm becoming me - an idealized vision of myself living out a lifelong fantasy. I chase down a fly ball in center field, and a young athletic fellow with "Abbott" on his uniform makes a sliding catch. Then he turns to the camera, and he looks just like me.

In “Road to the Show” mode, I create a wish-fulfillment self unencumbered by trivialities like reality. I and he exist interchangeably. He hits the home run because I hit the home run, and my joy in that moment is truly for both of us. Center-fielder Michael Abbott is my constructed self, on his/my way to becoming the National League MVP.

Collectively, these games surround the concept of self and encourage me to interrogate and deconstruct it, interactively, from many different perspectives. And, vitally, they make it feel worth doing.

Finally, there’s Life Flashes By, a game you’ve probably never heard of, but one that tackles the question of self more directly than any of the others I’ve discussed.

Designed by Deirdra Kiai, Life Flashes By is a point-and-click adventure that focuses on a middle-aged woman named Charlotte who discovers herself in a strange forest after a serious car accident. A droll pixie guides her through pivotal moments in her life, and the player chooses among a variety of options that can alter their outcomes and, consequently, Charlotte’s existence.

Screenshot6 On the surface Life Flashes By is familiar adventure-game fare (sans puzzles), with writing that can sometimes be stiff and ponderous. But Kiai is chasing something with this game that few designers have pursued.

Life Flashes By is essentially a contemplation on the question of self, with the player constructing a gallery of alternate Charlottes, each of whom represents a slightly different conception of herself. In all of these renderings, the post-crash Charlotte observes herself from a distance, critically reflecting on her insecurities and self-limiting fears - and sometimes overcoming them. 

In the end, no-self emerges, not as a spiritual or philosophical construct, but as a hard-earned lesson wrought out of earnest critical reflection.

Life Flashes By does what more games ought to do well: it shows you what it’s like to be someone else - someone who’s probably not like you at all, and who doesn’t seem particularly interested in winning your approval. Charlotte is on her way to becoming, but she doesn’t know who that will be. Just like your own self. The one that isn’t really there.