Pandora: Keeping Hope Alive Since Ancient Times

Let me start off by saying that in the process of deciding in which virtual world I would most like to live, I’ve realized that I’m probably a pretty good example of an escapist. Whether that’s a good or bad thing I haven’t decided, but there you go.

You see, I could have picked the gorgeous natural landscapes of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with elves and trolls and plenty of heroic battles. I could have chosen Rowling’s Hogwarts, where I could fly on a broom, apparate from place to place, and wield unimaginable power with the flick of a wand. However, despite the hundreds of gorgeous, exciting fantasy worlds out there, the one which appealed to me most is completely beyond the scope of the human race. Because honestly, if I could live in any virtual world, I would choose the lush paradise of James Cameron’s Avatar.

You can laugh all you’d like, but after seeing that movie, the sheer beauty and wonder of the Na’vi’s planet, Pandora, was all I could think about. The flora and fauna were astounding, the natural landscape awe-inspiring. The world seemed leagues above our own, free from all of the evils perpetuated by the human race. There was no greed, no lust for power, no desire to rip down nature’s beauty and build up cities of steel. Maybe it’s a bit “anti-society” to say it, but what I loved most about Pandora’s world was that WE had no place in it.

To be honest, I wanted to live in that world so badly that, in the hours after I left the theater, the realization that our world would never be so beautiful was actually painful. Like the Pandora of Greek mythology, all the movie could give me was hope, ridiculous yet indispensable. I longed to literally become one of the Na’vi, for their world presented the perfect form of escape. Life there was simple, yet somehow filled with meaning. There was no future to worry over, for there were no colleges, no loans, no imaginary currencies. Life boiled down to the relationships between you and the people you cared about, without the distractions of failing economies, corrupt governments, or any of the other flawed systems we’ve created to make life “easier”.

To use the words from an escapist viewer like myself: “One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.” (see link below for source)

So yes, while I could be defeating dark wizards at Hogwarts or destroying rings in the fires of Mt. Doom, all I truly desire is the chance to be a 10-foot tall, blue skinned alien on a planet light-years away from here. Because when all is said and done, I’d rather spend my life surrounded by the natural beauty of the Na’vi’s world than materialistic happiness of this one.

“All the best stories are but one story in reality– the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.” –A.C. Benson

 

–The Humblebug

(Link to CNN article: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed-posts?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ)

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The League of Extraordinary Allusions

Since our early years in the educational system, we as students have been taught to look beyond an author’s words for additional meanings in text. The lesson has been hammered in over and over– don’t judge a book by its cover, there’s more than meets the eye, don’t always take things at “face-value”. All of these phrases highlight the fact that we as humans are always looking for hidden meanings and alternative ways to view our lives. For those of us who enjoy delving into literature to unravel its subtle innuendos and allusions, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the perfect piece to analyze.

Now, seeing as Moore’s “book” is actually a comic, some may be quick to write it off as mere entertainment, assuming that the equivalent of an adult picture book couldn’t possibly have any depth. These critics, however, would be greatly mistaken.

Take, for example, the following panel, within which our heroes Miss Murray, Mr. Quartermain, and Monsieur Dupin confront the infuriated Mr. Hyde:

Now, though one could easily be distracted by the action of this scene, a few smaller details provide the perfect example of Moore’s subtlety and love of allusions.

Besides the obvious shout-out to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Moore alludes to the infamous battle between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla with the unobtrusive electrical box on the wall, which has the name “Edison” inscribed with curling letters. Right below Edison’s name, “Teslaton” is either inscribed or scratched in, depending how one wishes to view it. The letters seem less elegant than Edison’s, so it is up to the reader to decide. Did Moore place the rival inventors’ names side by side to create a sense of unity between the two? Or is he merely highlighting their animosity by making Edison’s name more appealing than Tesla’s?

Besides alluding to the rival inventors of current, Moore also uses his comic to bring up unsettling questions regarding the inequality of the sexes. In his witty commentary at the bottom of the page, the author mentions that the upcoming panels may offend his female readers, who are “of a more delicate sensibility.” Is Moore writing with blatant sexism to highlight how prevalent this attitude was in the late 19th century? Or is he being controversial simply to get a rise out of his audience? A slight to women would obviously rub some readers the wrong way, especially those who were not gifted in recognizing satire. Also, the fact that this snarky comment is placed right next to a defenseless heroine dressed in prostitute’s clothing cannot be a complete accident. Throughout his comic, Moore is constantly portraying women, as well as many minorities, in a distinctly unfavorable light. So the question remains, is Moore a satiric genius, or just a guy who likes to rile people up? Can he be both?

These are the kinds of questions Moore’s hidden allusions and ideas bring up for the reader. The comic is not merely entertainment, but a piece of art that uses bits and pieces of history and culture to create something new altogether. While Moore’s satiric style may be offensive to some and merely ridiculous to others, no one can sensibly deny that, for a comic book, his work as an astounding amount of depth.

 

–The Humblebug

Are Video Games Ever “High-Class”?

When we think of “art”, the images that come to mind are usually high-class galleries in the city, intricate sculptures displayed in the park, and eclectic painters living in their fancy loft apartments. Art appreciation is thought of as a cultural activity, reserved for those with intelligence and a discerning eye for beauty.

However, gone are the times when only paintings and sculptures were considered true art forms. These days, our society has come to accept a wide variety of media as works of art, from cinematic masterpieces to breathtaking works of literature. We have no trouble seeing the artistry in a beautifully written sentence or an artfully crafted scene in a movie, any more than we would in a Renoir painting or a Rivera mural. How then do we continue to turn a blind eye to the artistry of games?

Of course, video games have not always been prime candidates for the “art” category. One could hardly argue that the pixelated graphics of the first Space Invaders game are worthy of the same awe and respect as Beethoven’s 5th, yet the rapid development of graphics and technology as a whole has suddenly brought this question into the forefront of gamers’ minds. Can society ever accept video games as a valid art form? And, perhaps more importantly, should they?

As far as I’m concerned, yes, they should. WE should. While not all video games qualify as works of art, there are a choice few that may have reached the level of passion that art evokes in its viewers. To use one of my favorite games as an example, a player traversing the world of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess cannot help but wonder at the beauty of the digitally rendered landscapes, filled with carefully created characters and a compelling storyline. Just like a film, the game uses a mixed tale of adventure, love, and pain to draw the player into the artists’ intricate world.

The designers, exactly like dedicated painters, spent months creating every single detail, from towering castles to a single ray of sunlight glinting off the surface of a lake. If a painting of a rural scene can be called a work of art, why then can the same respect not be given to a digital rendering of the same type of landscape? The game did not take less effort, nor less creativity. The tools may have been computer keys instead of paintbrushes, but the result is not less refined simply because it is displayed on a screen.

Perhaps the obstacle blocking us from recognizing video games as art is not a lack of beauty, nor a lack of passion, but society’s simple unwillingness to call mere games “high-class”. Something about the word “game” makes the art community cringe. Society doesn’t want to give video games the title of art because then we’d have to stop blaming them for everything that has gone wrong in our world (violence, crime, rebellious teenagers, etc, etc, etc….)

Honestly, though, the time has come to stop tossing video games to the side in disgust. Their creators may not be as well-known as Michelangelo and Matisse, but the beauty of their creations should not be labeled as childish decoration for an immature pastime. Video games are here to stay, and the sooner we recognize their artistry for what it is, the sooner we can give their talented, dedicated designers the credit and respect they deserve.

 

–The Humblebug

Echoes, Quests, and Neekerbreeker Nests

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Among those quotes that send shivers trailing down my spine, few have had as lasting an impact as these words, spoken by the wizard Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The same lines, barely altered, appear in the wildly successful film adaptation of the novel. The raw power and beauty of Gandalf’s speech seem an inseparable part of the Lord of the Rings experience, yet not all storytelling mediums are equal where emotional attachment is concerned.

In the gaming world of Lord of the Rings Online, though the creators gave a valiant attempt at staying faithful to the book, an observant player realizes quickly that some things simply cannot transfer from page to computer screen. This fact is seen clearly in the Midgewater Marshes, a key stop in both Frodo’s quest and the player’s. While the consistent presence of physical action in the game’s rendition of the marshes engages the player’s thirst for adventure, both the novel and the film provide the audience with an enduring emotional connection, stemming from a persistent atmosphere of loneliness, a setting which highlights the plight of travelers in the marshes, and the use of central characters filled with a haunting fear of the unknown. While the memories of virtual victories eventually grow faint, the passions excited by novels and films grab hold of the audience and refuse to let go, ensuring that the magic of the stories, as well as the lessons they teach, will never fade with the passage of time.

In the game, the first item that the player notices is the convenient map residing in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen. Whenever the player doubts his sense of direction in an area akin to the Midgewater Marshes, he can simply look to the map and follow an unambiguous little arrow towards his quest’s goal. If moused over, it will even reveal how far away the goal lies. The dense fog becomes all but irrelevant, for the player’s eyes watch the arrow, not the ground before his feet.

In contrast, the novel depicts Frodo and his companions slogging through the marshy waters alone and arrowless, forever wondering where and when their dangerous travels will come to an end.  How can a gamer develop a sense of Frodo’s terror when the player can never be lost? One is never truly alone, for one can always turn to the handy arrow and make off swiftly towards home. This lack of fear and loneliness prevents the player from truly appreciating how it feels to wander the spider-infested marshes alone, despite the fact that his avatar traverses those same bogs. The action is the same, yet the feeling is vastly different. The game is forever leading you gently by the hand, while the novel and its cinematic counterpart drag you blindfolded into the gloom of the unknown.

If it is clear that the game’s helpful features bar it from evoking raw emotion, how then does the novel differ? The secret lies within Tolkien’s ability to not only relay the action, as the game does, but to relay the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters’ endless interpretations of the two. As the hobbits struggle to follow Aragorn through the bug-infested marshes, Tolkien provides the reader with a glimpse of their agony by commenting that “the hobbits [are] nearly frantic” as they hear the eerie cries of the swamp beasts, the Neekerbreekers. He describes their exceedingly unpleasant night, a sleepless one thanks to these unseen, yet not unheard monsters. This fear of the unknown permeates the Midgewater section of the novel, giving the reader a taste of how it feels to be alone and hunted in such a dismal place.

Here one discovers the true difference between the player’s avatar and the hobbits of the book. In the game, you play the part of a hero, a hunter. You blaze a trail through the marshes, destroying hordes of Neekerbreekers and taking trophies from the fallen beasts. You fear nothing, and why would you? Forever helpful, the game supplies a detailed analysis of your opponents’ strengths, even color coding them based on the probable victor of a theoretical battle.

In the novel, the likelihood of success versus defeat is not so clear. There, Frodo and his companions are not the hunters, but the cornered prey. They struggle to travel through the shadows, desperate to avoid the eyes of the Black Riders and their power-hungry master. No helpful floating names identify the whereabouts of their enemies; no color coded rings attempt to gauge their power. Thus, the reader experiences the terror of the hunted in a way that the player cannot hope to comprehend, for one medium provides an intricate world of fear and uncertainty, while the other merely depicts the action, like a rough pencil sketch devoid of color.

Like its written companion, the film is also able to draw out emotions in its audience that are beyond the scope of the online universe. While briefly touching on the fear of the hobbits, the cinematic version of the marsh scene elects to focus on the guide, Aragorn, and the pain he feels for a love left behind.  As the hobbits attempt to sleep amidst the cries of nighttime animals, the ranger softly sings the tale of an elf maiden who fell in love with a mortal, letting his voice carry through the lonely darkness of the swamp. Though his young charges do not know it, the haunting song, which ends in the maiden’s death, reflects Aragorn’s own love for the elf Arwen, as well as his fear that their love will destroy her.

Enhanced by the gloom of the surrounding marshes, the mixture of heartbreak and longing exuded by Aragorn grows to fill the audience, as well, and thus the pain of a single man becomes the pain of an entire crowd. This miracle of empathy simply cannot exist in the game world, where both written and visible emotions are brushed aside by the importance of the central adventure. Amidst the endless stream of quests to be fulfilled, the player cannot waste precious time on a woeful tale of lost love, nor a quiet song in the nighttime of the marsh. Though the powerful scene fits perfectly into the fabric of the movie, filling its viewers with both love and despair, it has no place in the realm of gaming, where emotions are a frivolity distracting from a player’s ultimate goal.

Though computer games currently lack the potential for emotional investment, this by no means suggests that the Lord of the Rings game is irrelevant to Tolkien’s fantasy world. Rather, the game was simply not engineered for the same purposes as its written and filmed counterparts. Whereas these forms of storytelling reach one’s imagination by means of the heart, the game is meant to feed on a player’s desire for adventure, entrancing one’s mind with events that are visually rather than emotionally stimulating. The online universe calls to those who desire battles and balrogs, not subtlety and suspense. The very reason the game cannot compare to the novel or film is the reason why it succeeds brilliantly in fulfilling its own purpose: to entertain, engage, and challenge its players.

While one may lament for marshes drained of their mystery or beautifully written characters depicted as static NPCs, you cannot deny that the game achieves the goal for which it was created. It brings the player into Tolkien’s world and weaves him into the story, filling him with excitement, anticipation, and a thirst for what lies ahead. Where the game falls short, where plot becomes side note and battle becomes routine, the novel and film are there to pick up the slack, adding life and color to supplement the game’s limited storytelling abilities. If the game were an outline, written in dull greys and blacks, the others would be vibrant dyes; whereas the game alone would be a poor excuse for the real story, the mixture of all three creates a tale that is beautiful to behold.

In the end, though, why does any of it matter? Whether boxed, leather-bound, or projected on a screen, are they all not just different forms of entertainment? Not quite. Though games, books, and movies all have a component of pleasure, the latter two occasionally provide a more permanent benefit. Of course, the flash of swords and the cry of an angry cave troll, whether heard or imagined, will always bring excitement. Without the thrills, who would pay for the ticket or purchase the book? Yet every once in a while, a novel or film comes along, and it does not just amuse—it teaches.

Like the words of Gandalf resonating in the reader’s mind, or Aragorn’s soft voice echoing in the darkness of the theater, the story begins to take on a life of its own, entrancing the audience with joy and fear, love and hatred. Aragorn’s pain becomes the pain of all who have ever loved; Frodo’s fear belongs to any who have ever felt afraid. When Frodo laments over his bad fortune, wishing that evil had never touched his doorstep, Gandalf’s famous next words are spoken not only to him, but to us: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Suddenly, the story is real, and the battle is our own. We feel Gandalf’s words in our very bones, and they return to us, lovingly, whenever we feel despair looming near. While the crashing excitement of adventure must always fade into silence, the softer passions of the novel remain attached to the heart like a living organism, a symbiotic being that retains life while we do the same. And long after the last pages have been turned, Tolkien’s words remain, echoing like a song in the night, growing soft, but never quite fading away.

 

–The Humblebug

Are Emotions Ever Impartial?

I’m gonna start this off by saying that it’s fortunate that Billy Mitchell doesn’t live near my house. If he did, I would have a few choice words for him, none of which I can repeat here.

As a gamer and a human being, I was appalled at the treatment poor, sweet, sensitive Steve was given in the film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. How can you blame me? Any viewer with a soft spot for the underdog would feel the film pulling at her heartstrings as the cameraman zooms in on Wiebe’s frustrated tears of defeat, fresh after the personal insults he received at the hands of Mitchell. Despite Mitchell’s prowess at the Donkey Kong arcade game, after 80 minutes of tricks, insults, and unrestrained arrogance, I truly wanted to punch the smug gamer in his self-righteous face.

But I’m getting off track here.

After attempting to sort out the heap of negative emotions I felt towards Billy during the film, a thought suddenly came into my mind. I didn’t particularly like it, for it encouraged me to be a reasonable, level-headed adult as opposed to a furious, bull-headed teenager. The thought was this: Did I really hate Billy Mitchell, the human being, or did I just hate the film’s 80-minute caricature of him? Sure, I couldn’t stand the smug smiles he flashed toward the camera or the infuriating way he refused to meet Steve in an honest, live competition, but was that really who Billy Mitchell was? A heartless snob who delighted in embarrassing his competition and flaunting his wife around the arcades? I wasn’t sure.

And honestly, I’m still not. Now that the passions ignited by the film have died down, I’ve had time to think, and it still bothers me that I’ll never know the truth about Billy Mitchell. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, so I don’t want to say I hate him. Heck, I don’t even know the guy. The movie wanted me to hate Billy, and so I did. But was this my own true emotion, or one simply given to me by a manipulative director? Does it even matter?

I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as an unbiased emotion. After all, aren’t all of our emotions simply products of our own personal experiences, and filled with our own unique prejudices? Perhaps Billy Mitchell isn’t the heartless, gamer-devouring demon that the film depicted him to be, but that knowledge doesn’t make me inclined to dislike him any less. Regardless of my biases, my eyes saw a shy, kind man being mocked by an arrogant bully, and my emotions reacted accordingly, just as they would if I had watched the scene play out in front of me. While there might be more to Billy than 80 minutes of rude harassment, I doubt anything I saw or heard would make his actions in the film excusable.

So, Billy, while I won’t say I hate you, you probably shouldn’t show up near my doorstep. Ever. My mind might say “Hey, give the guy a chance,” but my heart will probably say “Kick him.”

And people do often tell me I should follow my heart.

 

–The Humblebug

Me? I’m a Gamer.

As far as words go, “play” and “game” seem pretty similar, right? Almost interchangeable? I mean, they’re nowhere near as different as, say, “giraffe” and “asparagus”. Now those are two words with very different definitions.

However, all giraffes aside, are “play” and “game” really as similar as they seem? Let’s try changing it up a bit. What about comparing “playing” versus “gaming”? “Player” versus “gamer”? Maybe you can’t pinpoint exactly why, but saying “I’ve been playing all day” doesn’t quite sound the same as “I’ve been gaming all day”. However close the words may seem, the connotations have their differences.

The word “play”, for instance, implies fun and entertainment. The word itself seems lighthearted and joyous, the very opposite of serious work requiring focus and effort. Play should be silly and fun- it’s riding your bike with friends, running around the jungle gym, or rolling the dice on your favorite board game. You play because you want to have fun, and that’s that.

How, then, does gaming differ? One can certainly “play a game”, which implies using any game, electronic or otherwise, for a source of pleasure and entertainment. However, actual “gaming” is not quite the same. As any gamer knows, games are not always purely fun. While they can certainly be used for amusement alone, when one begins “gaming”, he or she becomes immersed not just in the entertainment, but in the challenge. And the challenge…well, it’s not always fun.

You see, “to game” is to transcend the realm of play, to desire more than simple entertainment. In a way, one could compare games to books (relax, anti-gamers, I said compare, not equate). A book can certainly be a form of entertainment, yet no one says “I’m going to go play with my book.” Why? Because books, while often entertaining, provide much more than just a smile and or a laugh. Likewise, gaming provides more than that- it proves engagement, encourages immersion in another world, and spurs on ambition for success.

Think of it this way. In an MMO, if you’re merely completing the fun quests because they make you happy, then you’re playing. If you’ve been trying to defeat that one boss for an hour and you’re so frustrated and angry that you want to throw your laptop off a bridge, now you’re gaming. A gamer’s goal is not mere entertainment. A gamer desires challenge, immersion. A gamer strives for success, whether the path towards it is amusing or, at times, utterly frustrating.

So the next time you’re about to use “play” and “game” in a sentence, stop for a moment and think. Which are you, really? Are you a player?

Or are you a gamer?

 

-The Humblebug

Playing the Popularity Game

You know the rules. Everyone does.

At least, everyone who’s anyone knows how to play the popularity game. That’s how it works, right? If you want to “be” somebody, you’ve got to be somebody else. Wear the right clothes, say the right things, be seen at the right places with the right people. Of course, you can get through high school without following the rules, but it’s a heck of a lot easier if you play along. I learned this lesson for myself a long time ago.

Thinking back to my freshman art class in high school, I remember the constant pressure pervading the room, urging each of us to play the game that kept us from being alone, unwanted, friendless. There was already a hierarchy in place, and we all knew it. Jock or jokester, loud or quiet, we all had our place in the society of 22, and no one wanted to be the kid who upset the status quo.

Sometimes, looking back, I wish I would have been the one who did.

On a day like any other, I had my chance. I was sitting next to one of the “popular” guys, the kind of kid who was usually a master at playing the game. His friends were teasing him, making snide comments about how silly and childish and nerdy he was for playing computer games on the weekends. His game of choice? World of Warcraft, of course.

Listening to their jibes, I felt an uncomfortable twist in my stomach. They were only kidding, of course, but beneath their words lay a real threat– don’t talk too much about your games. Don’t be too nerdy, too different. It’s not cool, not popular, and we won’t hurt our game by associating with yours. Your games aren’t good for your popularity game.

How could I possibly tell them that I played WoW, too? At home, with my brothers, being a gamer girl was great. New levels were a coveted achievement, and buying the latest expansion invited envy, not shame. Yet here, in a room full of my peers, I felt compelled to hide my gamer identity like a disturbing secret, a tragic flaw that must be buried in the closet, kept out of sight. I was expected to be the shy, artistic girl, not the gamer. I kept my mouth shut, and for the rest of the class (and year) I played the game that I was expected to play.

Now, four years later, I still look back on moments like that and wish I hadn’t been such a coward. My problem wasn’t that I enjoyed gaming; it was that I played my game with the wrong people. If you must play the popularity game (as most of us, save a courageous few, are destined to do), then play it with people who pressure you to be better, not similar. Play with those who think bringing your DS to college is awesome, not sad. Play with those who admire your ability to quote lines directly from Lord of the Rings, rather than with those who question your sanity. Play with those who expect you to be responsible, friendly, quirky, and loyal so that by playing the popularity game, you’re urged to become all of those things.

The world tells us to be individuals, leaders, breakers of the status quo. If that’s what you want to do, have at it. I won’t hold you back. As for me, I’m just fine playing the popularity game, because now, in my freshman year of college, I’ve finally found the right kind of people to play it with.

After all, as we gamers have always said, what’s wrong with playing a game that makes you happy?

 

–The Humblebug