Tag Archives: Empathy

Weighing in on Mass Effect’s Event Horizon

I don’t post much these days. In part that’s because I have very little to say that is directly relevant to the reason I started this blog. My comic reading has been declining for a while now, and once I finally got around to reading Marvel’s Fear Itself the decline took a sudden, sharp increase. I’ll be honest: Fear Itself was terrible. Certainly there were individual issues that were good (watching Squirrel Girl out kung fu Wolverine being a moment I was particularly fond of) when taken as an aggregate, as an entire narrative arc, dare I say it when viewed as an “event” it was not worth the time it took to read. It was Fear Itself that forced me to unambiguously confront the static nature of mainstream comics; the ways in which they simply recycle what has gone before with what I suspect Terry Pratchett would unflatteringly call a “newish” coat of paint.

Whether or not you agree with Alan Moore that the industry has been locked in a paradigm largely defined by what he did with Watchmen there’s no real innovation in comics. While narrative might have grown more mature in certain senses, and not simply in the “let’s add more blood and tits” sense, the superhero genre has not grown. Unfortunately with the superhero genre largely being defined by the “Big Two” this means that even non-mainstream comics suffer from this problem, since as has always been the case in so many other ways Marvel and DC are where many of the indie crew takes their cues from. It makes a certain kind of sense to follow the conventions that have worked for the successful companies, right? (Note I said it makes a certain kind of sense – I never said it was a good kind of sense).

Regardless, this was not a realization I was terribly comfortable with addressing directly, rather that the oblique fashion I had always approached it with in the past. I like superhero comics. I think great things can be done within the genre while still using the conventions of that genre (while still allowing us to twist and break those conventions as we please). Yet I increasingly have no desire to read superhero comics… because there’s only so much of the same shit, different day I can stomach.

Not that I’m here to talk about Fear Itself, or even comics – this is all just my way of thinking out loud, as well as providing a spoiler buffer for those who might find the link via a source that includes a portion of the post’s text. Which means it is time for the awkward segue into a post I hadn’t planned on writing; however, with Bioware’s Dr. Ray Muzyka posting a statement about Mass Effect 3 and the way people have been responding to its ending, I decided to set aside all the reasons which had made me not write this, and write it anyway.

I have invested a great many hours into playing the games that make up the Mass Effect trilogy. According to Steam I’ve invested ~91 hours to the first game, ~117 hours to the second, and I would guess ~40 into the third. If we add all that up and divide by 24 we wind up with ~10.3 (that’s a repeating 3, if you’re feeling the need to be precise). That means I have spent roughly 10 and 1/3 days of my life playing a Mass Effect game, and that doesn’t even count the time I spent reading things that were in some way related to the game (news articles, wiki entries, character class guides etc.).

If we look at all the days of our lives, 10 1/3 isn’t so much, is it? Should we total the hours, we will spend far more of our lives than that asleep, or in voiding our bowels. Yet when compared to the average videogame experience, some of which I’ve spent over 100 hours with, others which have been completed in 6 – 8 (and a few in less than that), 10.3 days of my life is a rather heavy investment of time and energy.

That I spent so much time with these games suggests that I have derived an above-average amount of enjoyment from them. This is not to say that I think they have been perfect games. I have talked before about the ways in which I think the Paragon/Renegade system, and the overly-obvious way that system was implemented in dialogue simply reinforces an archaic “kill puppies for Satan/hug puppies for Jesus” morality system. While I like the character of Thane Krios overall, I find the dualism he articulates to be so weak that a first year undergraduate could destroy it without breaking a sweat, and EDI’s comments about what constitutes the transhuman condition to be very ill-defined. Certainly I appreciated that on the whole Mass Effect was willing to touch on philosophical issues, but I tended to be disappointed that they tended to do so in ways that were both blunt (often clumsily so) and watered down. While playing the second game my fingers were reduced to bloody nubs, and my mouth became a font which spewed nothing but profanity more than once during the course of Garrus’ recruitment mission.

While I consider all of these valid critiques, and they were all things that to one degree or another detracted from my play experience, none of them was significant enough either on their own, or when taken as an aggregate, to spoil that experience.

For all those hours invested in these game, for all the enjoyment I derived from the playing of them, the ending of Mass Effect 3 was an utter disappointment. There is no other way to put it. It was poorly explained, did not sensibly follow from what had come before it, and in all respects was a textbook example of poor writing. In short, the ending of the game was simply not up to par with the overall quality of the series, and when viewed as the crowning moment of the experience that is Mass Effect left me bitterly disappointed. While I do think the vehemence of some of the backlash has been unwarranted, simply dismissing it as fanboy entitlement, or claiming that people shouldn’t be upset because it is just a game are, as far as excuses go, complete and utter bullshit. I’ve talked before about the ways in which our capacity for empathy can be engaged by things which are not at all real in the classic sense of real (as well as here, though the focus in this case is dreams, rather than fiction). In a very real sense, and in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with being unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, these games, and the characters contained within, become real for us. While they might not exist, they affect and influence us in ways which have meaning.

I also quite strongly disagree with the idea that Mass Effect 3‘s position as being the last of a trilogy, and thus being in certain respect an ending in and of itself, somehow obviates the installment from conditions we might otherwise expect it to have. I’m afraid that is simply not the case, and the reason it is not the case is by its nature as an installment. While the underlying condition of a trilogy is indeed that each portion is part of an overarching narrative, they must also each have their own working parts; each unit must, in effect, duplicate the macrocosm on the microcosmic level. To put it in less fanciful terms – if one of the parts is busted the whole damn thing has problems.

I also want to touch on the idea of the artist’s vision being inviolate. That this is the ending the folks at Bioware wanted, and as such we must, by its very nature, respect it. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, such utter horseshit that I am not entirely sure where to begin. First, it presumes that videogames are in fact capable of being art. I remain unconvinced of such claims on the whole. While it might certainly be true that videogames have the potential to become art, and perhaps some have managed to become art, I suspect that nature of games as games might well provide a not-inconsiderable barrier to engaging with the experience as an experience, rather than engaging with the experience within the context of rules and how to achieve the best outcome (a point I have touched on when I discussed the implementation of morality and decision systems in games). However, for the sake of argument I am willing to set aside my doubts, and accept that games can be art. I’m going to tell you a secret: art is changed because of audience demand all the time. In the realm of videogames it happened in relation to Fallout 3‘s ending. Films and television shows use focus groups and early screenings, and reshape their final product based on these focus groups and screenings on a regular basis. Fine artists, including those artists we hold up as being the very incarnations of art, frequently shaped their work based on the desires of their patrons. Art is important. Allowing the artist a degree of autonomy is also important. Art does not, however, exist in a vacuum. Moreover, art is also frequently product, and like any product is going to find itself subject to commercial demands. It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly true.

For the record, I say these things as someone who has absolutely no desire to see a new/revised/expanded ending to Mass Effect 3. I fully went into the game expecting Shep to die. In truth, I expected Shep and/or Shep’s love interest to plunge themselves into the fiery heart of the Crucible, thereby becoming the Catalyst and saving the galaxy. I appreciated this not being the ending, as such an ending would have been predictable and cliche. Which would have made it several orders of magnitude better than the way in which the game did end. Changing the ending, however, even if those changes make the ending better, does not change the fact that I have already experienced the ending – it is now a part of me. I would much rather that it has been done right the first time instead of supporting a petition to lock the door well after the horse has escaped, burned the barn down, made his way to Vegas and spent all my money on hookers. My point is not simply to log my own discontent with the ending, but to stand counter to those who feel that we should neither feel discontent, nor should we voice it. I will, however, say that you should voice it without being a dick… a point which I will freely admit many people have failed on.

Overall, my experience with Mass Effect was an enjoyable one. It was a worthwhile journey. The destination, however, was not worth that journey; so much so that I remain unsure that I will make the journey a subsequent time with other characters.


Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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Lies that Speak Truth to the Human Heart; Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy

If there is one thing I can count on the internet for, it’s that when a discussion of a video game, comicbook, television show, novel, movie, or whatever form of media floats your boat comes up, someone, somewhere, at some point will likely respond to criticism of it with some variation of, “It’s just fiction.”

At first blush that certainly seems like it has some validity to it, doesn’t it? After all, something that is fictional is by its nature not true. It likely even meets Kant’s definition for being an analytic statement; that is to say it is a statement which contains its own definition without needing supplement (bachelor being one of the more commonly used examples of an analytic statement; it contains in itself the meaning of “an unmarried adult male”). The word’s place in a Kantian schema isn’t terribly important, particularly since further elaboration would require me to listen to a Kantian without entering a catatonic state, and I fear I’m simply not up to so Herculean a task.

The important takeaway from the above is not the Kantian digression, but the fact that most adults upon hearing the word fiction will understand it to mean that we are speaking about something which is not true. Bertrand Russell would certainly agree with this sentiment; in his tendentious, torturous essay on why ordinary language is insufficient for  the doing of philosophy, Russell talked about if I say something like, “The current king of France is bald,” said statement is meaningless largely because there is not a current king of France. Which is why despite admitting it would render ordinary communication impossible, Russell insisted we needed to make a language specifically for the doing of philosophy, so that shenanigans could be avoided.  This particular point of view would underlie (and undermine) the ideas of logical positivism (the forerunner of analytic philosophy). (I will interrupt with a brief confession. Russell did do some good work, and I’ve always wondered if the essay I mention here wasn’t done as something of a joke; written in a deliberately obtuse and obstructive style in order to illustrate his point. Regardless, the moves in philosophy that Russell describes, and which became profoundly influential, were also moves that helped direct contemporary philosophy away from usefulness and toward academic circle jerking. Moving on.)

We, as a species, have something far more important than a language of logic or a factual king of France; we have the ability to think abstractly, and to imagine. There does not need to be a current king of France for me to conceive that there is, or could be, and that this nonexistent king is in fact bald. I would even go so far as to say it is easier for me to understand what the statement out a fictional king of France being bald is representing than it is for me to properly understand the distances involved in something like a light year; while the light year might be a “factual” unit, the scale of what it represents requires significantly more imagination, because most of us have no experiential referent to compare it to.

So on at least a literal level, fiction isn’t nonsensical or meaningless. Common sense would tend to tell us that, because if the nature of fiction were nonsensical we wouldn’t engage with fictional materials; not because we would be wasting time, but because we simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend them. In fact, the potential meanings carried in fiction have been a concern of philosophy going back to its “official” beginnings.

Plato, in his Republic, goes off on a digression about the hypothetical ideal city. He blathers about the various castes that will make up the city, and other details that have made the Republic the only book to ever put me to sleep twice in the same day. However, among his natterings there is one class of folks that Plato is quite clear will have no involvement with the ideal city: poets. Plato was not fond of poets and artists, because he was terrified by the possibilities of mimesis; those naughty, fictional doings, and reproductions of objects could very well lead us deeper into the cave so that we never saw the light of Plato’s imaginary forms. If fiction was incapable of conveying meaning, and meaning beyond that which it takes to simply be comprehensible, but rather the kind of meaning that informs and shapes our way of being in the world, why would Plato be so worried about? And if fiction is incapable of conveying deeper meanings, why did Plato choose to present his work as fictional dialogues?*

Clearly, fiction is not nonsensical, and is capable of conveying meanings on a level beyond a surface engagement of entertainment. Part of it is that we are beings of abstract thought and imagination, and we can be affected by things that are not “real,” an idea which I have talked about previously. If you didn’t believe me there, it turns out that neuroscience is (finally) catching on to what some philosophers have been saying for at least a few hundred years. Yet I don’t think that this capacity fully explains the ways in which we can, and often do engage with fiction. I suspect that it is not only our capacity for abstract thought and imagination, our ability to dream as it were, but also our capacity for empathy that allows us to immerse ourselves into fictions as we do. I don’t agree with everything in this video. I don’t think that our capacity for empathy comes from an understanding of mortality, particularly since some animals do seem to display empathy, or something similar, and as of yet we’ve no reason to presume that they understand/conceive of death in the same way that humans do. I also have a few other quibbles with the information presented, but again I digress.

When we willingly suspend our disbelief and engage with a work of fiction we connect with the worlds and characters we experience. Much as with dreams, visions, etc. they in way become real to us. Even without visual triggering of mirror neurons these fictional characters and events can make us laugh or cry; they share part of their lives with us, and in doing so evoke our emotions. While it’s by no means a good thing, it’s small wonder then that some people might come to confuse an actor for the character they portray; to those of us who experience the results of their work at home the actor him or herself is a cypher. We do not know this person. Yet the character they portray, or portrayed in the past, is someone with whom we have established a rapport. In activating our capacity for empathy these characters have become part of the narrative of our own lives, all without ever being “real.”

Fiction also has another great power; it can tell us unpleasant truths, while hiding from us that it is telling unpleasant truths. By moving things into the realm of fiction, we can deal with them a step or more removed. If I simply tell someone that religion is a lie, or that they are embedded in a racist society whether they consider themselves racist or behave in an overtly racist manner, there is a fairly good chance that this person is going to feel as if I am attacking them and respond defensively. While it is certainly not a foolproof method, and it is entirely possible this person (and others) would miss the point I was making, or would still feel as if I was attacking, by wrapping this issue in a fictional coating I can present to them the same argument, the same truths in such a manner that it is perhaps not such a bitter pill to swallow.

Trying to dismiss something as just being fiction is, at best, disingenuous. Fiction might well not have a single grain of fact in it, but that does not mean that it is “false.” Plato certainly knew this, and knew that the ideal city would have to ban poets for fear that the fictions they told might undermine the tyrannical party line. Like our dreams, fiction is capable of touching us in the same manner as the “real” world; it can be as much a part of the intersubjective web in which we are immersed as other people, or the physical objects we interact with on a daily basis.

The things I talk about in this blog and elsewhere are examples of that; artifacts of popular culture that are also artifacts that enable philosophical engagement. Perhaps it is time that more philosophers follow in the footsteps of Camus, Sartre, even Nietzsche, as well as such primarily “literary” personalities such as Hesse, and understand that we needn’t speak a convoluted language of dead white guys to speak philosophically about, and to, the world. There is no reason that we could not speak a language of lies that tells the truth.

*(I have heard some make a great deal of the fact that one of Plato’s statements in his Republic is that the philosopher ruler is “…a lover of truth and a hater of lies,” yet at several points the philosopher ruler lies to the people. Also, if Plato was so down on poets and tellers of tales, isn’t he contradicting himself by using fiction? The answer is no, because he clearly admits to the acceptability of fables; fictions that might not be true in fact, but that teach an important moral truth. The lies of the philosopher ruler, and the fictions of Plato, were not deceptions of malice or mimesis, they were the kind of moral instruction one might offer to a child. What that might say about Plato’s opinion of others is for you to decide, dear readers, but there is no contradiction in respect to this particular point.)


Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Comics, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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