Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Is it really an allegory?

To be honest, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t think that it could be allegorical of anything at all. It was a highly fictional world with Elves and Dwarves and Magical Rings that are just too imaginative to be part of the real world. To me, Lord of the Rings was nothing more than the product of Tolkien’s fantastic imagination and dedication towards creating such a detailed world. All I saw was a writers’ great enthusiasm towards the concept of this imaginary world in which all the creatures from the fairy tales we all have read live together.

To be fair, I was 15 at the time so I’m not surprised to see how my recent readings of this series has completely changed its meaning – not going to lie, I enjoyed my first reading far more than my recent ones, just because I was able to immerse myself into this fantastical world and almost become a part of the story. In recent readings, however, I have been much more aware of what is actually happening in the story and have often connected aspects of it to the real world. By doing so, I did cut out on some of the fun of reading it, but my recent readings of the series have been far more memorable, just because they now feel a little more realistic.

In the foreword, Tolkien bluntly states that “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” In short, THIS BOOK IS NOT ALLEGORICAL OF ANYTHING – And my first reading of this book is representative of exactly this. As the story progressed, I went along with Frodo and Sam on their quest and felt the same things as they would have felt – the book most definitely held the attention of its readers. What really strengthens this idea that Lord of the Rings is purely fictional is that Tolkien just didn’t stop at this book, but wrote almost 12 more books on the history and lore of Middle Earth. He was just trying his best to make a complete fictional world.

However, at this point it’s just difficult for me to think that this book (and all the books preceding or following it) does not pull from the events around Tolkien in his time. The overlaying themes of good versus evil is something that was (and is) highly prominent at the time given that this book was written shortly after the first World War and was followed by the second World War. The number of parallels that can be drawn between the book and the state of the world at that time make it very difficult to agree with the fact that this book was written as pure fiction. Sure, the book is not a direct allegory of real events such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it is clear that each character represents a person in the real world, but it is most definitely not pure fiction.

Looking at the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s comments about how the book was not intended to be allegorical of the war, one question that came to my mind was that can anything be pure fiction? Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during a time of great social and political turmoil and it is hard to think that those ideas were not part of his subconscious while writing the book. It is extremely difficult not to include aspects of the real world in writing and almost impossible to not be influenced by what is going on around you. In my public speaking course, we have been talking about informative speeches and how it is necessary to be unbiased in such speeches. During our discussions, I realized that it is really difficult not to include any of your own opinions to be part of your speech in one way or another. In the same way, I’m certain that Tolkien definitely had some opinions on the state of the world at that time, and at some point some of these ideas were bound to bleed into his writing. Perhaps, this is why he states that the book was not intended to be an allegory, but the ideas presented in the book are highly applicable to the real world and this is just a result of some of his own opinions being reflected in his writing. Taking a look at another ‘fictional’ series, Harry Potter once again deals with highly imaginative topics such as wizards and fantastic beasts. However, it is quite often debated that this series too has some allegorical aspects with respect to religion. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, themes that are shared with christianity are seen throughout the book, and I think it’s very possible that his interactions with C.S. Lewis could have been a contributing factor to that. After all, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is full of references to the Bible.

In the end, I agree with Tolkien on the statement that The Lord of the Rings was not written as an Allegory to the second World War, Christianity, or any of the many other ideas and themes that this book parallels. It was written as an attempt to entertain and excite readers and it does exactly that. However it is nearly impossible to write any work without being influenced by the culture and society around you and The Lord of the Rings is a result of the events happening around the time it was written, blending into it. However, this actually doesn’t take away from the book but in fact, adds to it. By adding aspects to it that are representative of the real world, readers are able to connect with the book at a deeper level as they are familiar with the concepts being dealt with. It allows the readers to relate to the events taking place in the book and in some ways enhances their experience as the delve deeper into the world that the author has created for them.

Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and The Video Game Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Don’t get caught up in this damn World of Warcraft arms race,” he told me. “You’ll only lose sight of why you enjoy the game in the first place.”

He was referring to the fact that in World of Warcraft, a game that we played together when I was younger, the developers constantly released new, awesome material that required your constant attention and dedication in order to master. A lot of this came in the form of high end “gear,” or equipment that would grant bonuses to a player’s abilities. Once you got towards the end of the new content, you might get diminishing returns on your investment in terms of stats, but it was still noticeable, and a lot of players still grind out countless hours for the sake of becoming a tiny bit stronger. I was one of those players.

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Though my old account has long since been deleted, this is some of the stuff I was working with. You tend to have a lot of free time when you get grounded as a teenager, and oh lord could WoW use every bit of it. There was a never-ending stream of items, equipment, skills and mounts to obtain and master. I’d spend a lot of time going through the same dungeons and events over and over in the hopes of getting some gear that I hadn’t gotten yet, half for my own abilities in the game and half for pride.

My dad would notice my reaction when I’d lose some sort of achievement that I wanted, and he’d usually get on me for not enjoying the game itself. You know, cuz that’s kinda the point of a game. I’d spend most of the time that I played with my dad looking forward to simply getting loot, losing track of what was most valuable about that time with my dad.

One of our favorite dungeons was called Karazhan; it was an old castle filled with all sorts of magic creatures and haunting spirits who held strong items and fun challenges.

This is but one of them, as our heroes attempt to defeat the actors in the play. The play changes between three random options, and in this one they try to defeat the Big Bad Wolf as he spontaneously chases random members of their party, who are designated as “Little Red Riding Hood,” all the while screaming “Come here little girl!”

Totally fun, right? I missed out on a lot of the pure enjoyment of the game because I was too concerned with the end result. Another good example comes from the final boss of Ulduar, an ancient Dwarven city dedicated to the mystical Titans who created this world.

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Besides the innovative combat, the stunning location and graphics, and the numerous challenges present for players, Ulduar offers some of the most expansive and immersive lore that I’ve ever encountered as a gamer. Hours of gameplay must be dedicated to reach this point, and we are given a lot of incredible story line along the way that culminates in our showdown with Yogg-Saron. This encounter is both extremely challenging and totally fun, but I spent most of this time worrying about what loot he was going to drop.

Had I not, I might have enjoyed the game as it was meant to be played. I couldn’t tell you now all the stuff that my characters possessed in this game, or even how much time I spent acquiring it. However, I can’t describe the nostalgia that I got when looking up videos to put in this blog. Each of them brought back individual memories with my dad, or they reminded me of how much fun I had immersing myself in one of the great games of our time.

This is all to say that we should take the message of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to heart, especially in gaming. If we start to stress too much about the end goals of the game, or keep chasing minor achievements and a minuscule leg up on other players, then we start to lose the reason that we play games like this in the first place.

Pokemon Go Ruined Pokemon for Me

As a young child, I was part of the generation that was swept up with the original Pokemon. I had dozens of cards which I kept pristine in a collectors book, and I had tiny little action figures of Ash and Misty which I played with while I cuddled with Togepi, a stuffed version of an egg creature from Pokemon, who trilled when squeezed.

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(photo credit: amazon.com)

I was obsessed with Pokemon, but there was one problem, I was not allowed to watch it. My parents were very strict about what I was allowed to watch, and Pokemon did not make the cut as it held no educational value. So I played with the merchandise but never saw the original source, and as time went on, I moved on to other toys.

Fast forward over a decade later, and I read an article about a new Pokemon game coming to my phone, where I can catch Pokemon in real life! I downloaded it as soon as it was available, and I was overwhelmed with nostalgia as I watched the Pokeball bounce around on the loading screen. I was a bit nostalgia-drunk from the experience, and realizing that I am now an adult who can do whatever I like (haha not really), I decided to finally watch the original show that had been banned to me all those years ago. Netflix had caught on the trend so the entire original series was available to watch on the platform. So I popped some popcorn and settled in for what I expected to be a pleasant experience dripping with nostalgia. As the title song played, I nodded along smiling. As the show progressed, the smile slowly faded, and even nostalgia could not save it.

I hated it. That’s right. I hated the show. The Pokemon were extremely cute, but I could not help but cringe as they were forced to fight each other, often resulting in an injury severe enough to land them in a Poke-Hospital. These cute little creatures were captured only after they had been weakened by battle, and they sat in a Pokeball until the Pokemon master let them out to fight other Pokemon. If these had been animals, I would have called the police for animal cruelty. Indeed, what I felt like I was watching was the equivalent of cartoon dog fights. Even though it was entirely fictional, I couldn’t help but feel sick on how the Pokemon were treated, and how they still were so loyal to the person who captured them.

I cried watching the show. Yes I admit it. It may seem ridiculous, but this scene (starting at 8:45) had me balling like a baby. I quit watching the show soon after.

The Pokemon Go game lost all appeal to me soon after. I admired the concept, but every time I caught a Pokemon, I saw poor Charmander desperately trying to keep his flame dry while waiting in the rain for the master who abandoned him (if Charmander’s flame goes out he dies). So ended my love affair with Pokemon, my quest for nostalgia brought on by Pokemon Go only lead to pain and disappointment.

 

Pokemon GO! The Ethics of Augmented Reality

Pokemon Go is the new gaming phenomenon of the year. Revisiting the old fashioned Nintendo Pokemon games, Pokemon Go takes that same experience up a level by adding the features of Augmented Reality. Allowing people to walk around the planet with their phones and search for Pokemon, the game has added a new dimension to gaming. And along with that, one of the main selling points of the game is their focus on fitness. A recent statistic stated that since the game released earlier this year, people playing the game have walked about 4.6 billion kilometers. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the distance from the Sun to Neptune and more than the distance NASA’s Voyager 1 has travelled in the past 12 years!

However, this achievement does not come without problems. While the game has several positive aspects – people are being more active and have started going out more (even though they are still looking into their screens), and meeting new people (I myself have made a couple of friends while playing the game), there have been quite a few concerns regarding trespassing. People have often been reported to walk into peoples private residences, trying to catch a particular Pokemon. While Niantic, the developers of the game are completely on the legal side of this issue, questions about the company’s responsibility for the actions of their consumers have started emerging. The popularity of the game has pushed the company into new ethical and legal issues that have never been dealt with before; and with the fast developing world of augmented reality, such issues are going to become more frequent as new games implementing this technology are released. While some people say that the players are completely responsible for their actions and how they play the game, many suggest that the game in some ways is encouraging players to trespass into restricted areas, or at restricted times through where the PokeStops are located and where many Pokemon are found.

Public places like monuments or parks are the ideal location to play games such as these, so often Niantic focuses on such areas by providing more Gyms and PokeStops, in a way encouraging their players to come to that location more often. Niantic has received requests from several organizations to remove PokeStops from near their establishments, and so far, Niantic has complied. But the question of whether Niantic is responsible or not is still unanswered.

In my opinion, both parties in question are to an extent to blame for this. Neither are completely wrong in doing this, but since this is a new field of ethical gaming and technology we are dealing with, new rules must be put into play. So far, there are no limitations to where one can place digital markers in the real world, but now as augmented reality is becoming a… reality, we need to make some new laws or rules to govern this. The lack of limitations on where Niantic has put their Gym’s and PokeStops often leads people into unknown territory. As far as the players are concerned, ideally they should be paying more attention to where they are walking and should be more receptive of their surroundings, but the fact that to play the game you must always be looking at the screen of your phone is not really helpful. Niantic has made some efforts to reduce the amount of time that people spend looking at their screens by introducing apps for wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, but this is still not the complete solution. I’m sure that as more game developers start implementing VR into their games, new laws governing the use of digital space will emerge, but until then all we can do is make sure to be more receptive to our surroundings while playing until we are offered a satisfying solution.

 

A solid break from stress and “Legion”

I think the moment I realized that I had gotten really into the game was when I stepped out of the Towers West Lounge and thought about walking backward to turn back time out of curiosity. That HUNT! puzzle killed me.

I admit that I didn’t spend as much time playing the game as my partner Katherine, but I did sit down and had the great pleasure of trying to wring out puzzle pieces and completion from worlds 4 and 5. The double lever shadow puzzle also killed me.

 

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I wasn’t particularly gripped with the story. I know the game came out a while ago, but I was dissuaded by the very tell-centric nature of delivering the narrative. I didn’t feel like I was playing through the story as much as just playing a puzzle game and reading about some aspects of the story every new world. As a creative writer and otherwise fiction analyst, I find that, especially with interactive media, it is so very interesting to be able to tell a game’s story through the actual game. Sometimes for games I don’t play, I look at cinematics to learn some parts of the story, and especially for fighting games it’s amazing to me how much story they can fit into fighting sequences. Considering that example is a fairly limited form of the video game medium for show-centric story, it seems almost cheap for a game like this to skimp completely out of showing and just rely on the several books at the beginning of each new world.

Nonetheless, I was thoroughly intrigued by the game, and I was so fascinated by the repetition of puzzles and the way they simply used newer mechanics to make the repeated puzzles less…repetitive. Adding new mechanics was a really fun way of taking puzzles that previously were fairly trivial and making us have to rethink them and really wrack our brains for good solutions. Still looking at you, HUNT!.

More on the mechanics – not a lot of games switch up mechanics midway through the game. Sure, you might be able to acquire new abilities or weapons that supplement the skills you’ve already developed, but I think a major part of the difficulty of Braid was encountering these new mechanics early on and needing to simply engage with them and figure them out as you were solving the puzzles. While the base skills remain the same (sure, the jumping and time rewinding), you fairly rapidly have to be able to integrate these new skills and at least attempt the puzzles with possibly underdeveloped feelings for how the mechanics will work.

One of the biggest preventions of that making me give up on this game experience was the fact that I could go through the game without actually needing to solve all of these crazy puzzles immediately was a major drawing point for me to this game. I’m not a huge platformer guy, and I like puzzle games, but mostly just on mobile devices. Despite all of this, I found Braid incredibly easy to get into and stay into due to my ability to move on from one puzzle to the next if I found myself stuck on one for more than twenty minutes.

Overall, I thought the game was incredibly intuitive and thoroughly enjoyable, through the difficulty. I probably wouldn’t finish the game by myself, but I thought that figuring out the puzzles that I did was particularly rewarding and I enjoyed the experience a lot. Even though I failed several puzzles. And I didn’t realize how to finish the purple lion puzzle. It was late and I had had some champagne, okay?

Gaming Has Positive Effects On Your Health… So Where’s The Hype?

By Sparling Wilson

In class, we have discussed how video games incorporate many different philosophical, artistic, historical, and social issues across their many forms and types. For some games, relaying information or a critique to the player is the end of goal, while others incorporate these elements more subtly to make a deeper and more complex gaming experience. Even first person shooter games incorporate high though, such as Bioshock’s blatant critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivism. However, even games that are not as cerebral can benefit the players.

Heath and mental benefits of these games range. According to Dr. Daphne Bavelier players’ eyes may actually benefit from looking at a screen for hours, improving the ability of people who play most to distinguish gray scale and the definition of objects. She also indicated that playing certain kinds of games have positive effects on people’s ability to multitask and on their attention.

Here is the video, where you can see Dr. Bavelier giving the talk..

Ted Talk On The Benefits of Gaming

This Ted Talker spoke about designing games to be useful for rehabilitation or specific learning purposes, which of course is valid. At the same time, I must offer a critique on her idea, and specifically her presentation of it. While she just spoke about the benefits of playing video games, and most importantly first person shooter games, which have long been considered the most extra-regular of the gaming family (minimal story line, all focused on simple, repeated task of shooting enemies), she just took a major step back and gave a large blow for the gaming community. Sadly, she separates games played for pleasure from games with a practical application. If you watch the video, she spends a great deal of time relaying how these pleasurable games actually do have a practical application, and yet, she does not consider games played for pleasure to be completely as applicable as a game designed with a more scientific purpose.

Personally, I am constantly befuddled at the mainstream community and scientific community to continually write off gaming and gaming culture,  especially after seeing the great deal of high-concept thinking that video games employ. Why can’t we accept that games are a valid form of media, and event at their most basic form, they provide health and mental benefits when used in moderation?

I have come to view gaming as awesome: it incorporates visual art, audible art, narrative, philosophy, history, culture, participates in remediation, and critiques itself, probably more than any other form of media. What’s more, I’ve come to regard it as one of my favorite forms (although I’m still new) because it’s interactive and challenging: I am able to participate in the art and narrative in a way that is unique to gaming.

I guess going back to my previous question about people accepting the validity of gaming in the mainstream, I can relate to the haters. A few months ago, I didn’t really understand much of the hype or the depth that games can possess; I merely thought of gaming as entertainment. My assumption is that as gaming continues to attract more and more followers, both through a diversity of genres and increasing accessibility because of platform integration (hello, mobile games), people will begin to see games as a more valid form of media. As a result, more scientific and sociological research will be done on games, and then, once the artistic and scientific communities fully accept games, the medium will receive the respect it deserves. It is sad that acceptance necessitates this kind of validation, but I really hope that it comes soon.

Super Meat Boy Uses Psychology to Keep You Playing

By: Thomas C Adams

Super Meat Boy (2010) is an indie platformer developed by Team Meat. This game is commonly considered one of the most frustrating games to play much less actually complete. In fact, I still haven’t beaten it myself (I’m on the last level). Being a very frustrating and challenging game, you would think most players fiddle with the game for a few minutes, maybe an hour, and eventually give up. However, many people who play the game play it to completion (or almost-to-completion in my case). How can such a frustrating game keep players interesting and wanting to progress?

The beauty of Super Meat Boy (SMB) lies in its replay system. Once you complete a level, you get to see all your previous attempts at the level play at the same time. Here’s a video of a replay so you can understand what I mean:

As you can see, the game gives you feedback as to how you are learning and progressing on each single level. After you spend numerous attempts (maybe even hundreds) to complete the level and finally do, it’s a very rewarding experience. Moreover, you see this replay on your screen of your attempts. You will see many of the first attempts die within seconds. You will see how you learned from past attempts and changed your strategy. And in the end, you will finally see the one meat boy who finally made it to the end of the level.

Feedback is a very important part of maintaining a behavior. In this case, that behavior is playing SMB. Numerous psychology studies have shown that if you give feedback for a behavior change (such as playing a certain game or recycling), subjects are more likely to continue that behavior. (Larson et al. 1995, Seligman and Darley 1977, DeLeon and Fuqua 1995).

As you progress through the challenging levels and then see your progression at the end of each level, you are noticing your improvements and are becoming optimistic about future attempts. Of course, the game gets harder as you progress, but you’ve seen yourself get better and better each step of the way, so there’s nothing to say that you wouldn’t be able to complete any of the later levels. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but Team Meat’s incorporation of the replay system very likely has a cognitive affect on players using feedback and could be what keeps them playing, despite their hours of frustration.

– Thomas