“Realistic” Simulations: Foreboding in Alito’s Concurrence in Brown v. Merch.?

In June of 2011, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law that wanted to prevent the sale of violent or “adult” videogames to children who did not have parental permission. Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and for him it was a mostly clear-cut First Amendment case: Videogames count as the kind of protected speech that is covered by the free speech clause, and the California law gets in the way of that free speech. Straightforward. (The two dissenters wrote separately: Thomas took up the issue of parents, minors, and law, while Breyer took issue with an apparent incongruence in curtailing the sale of pornographic magazines and films but not of potentially pornographic videogames.)

I found the concurrence by Alito (joined by Roberts) particularly interesting. Alito still thought the law should be struck down, but seemed less sure than Scalia that video games were just another medium of expression, just like books or motion pictures. After playing some violent videogames, Alito writes, “[s]ome amici who support respondents foresee the day when “ ‘virtual-reality shoot-‘em-ups’ ” will allow children to “ ‘actually feel the splatting blood from the blown-off head’ ” of a victim.” Alito goes on to criticize Scalia’s opinion for failing to recognize differences of interaction between video games and other media.

As a Justice of the Supreme Court, Alito’s role is to look to arguments and evidence as presented. I am not so restricted. I propose three different lenses for considering Alito’s concern to evaluate whether it is justified: psychology, phenomenology, and Aristotelian catharsis.

1) Psychology. By psychology, I mean both clinical analytic psychology and something closer to neuroscience. Given the right scientific tools, the experiment is an easy one to conduct: subjects are exposed to a book, a movie, a platformed video game, and an immersive virtual-reality simulation each depicting the same act of violence. The brain of the subject is monitored (using MRI or whatever is better by the time such an experiment occurs) and the brain activity for each stimula is compared. This would, at least, determine whether there is a difference in the way the brain interacts with different media. Psychologists would also be able to observe and interview subjects to provide another means of evaluating the effects of each medium.

2) Phenomenology. Here, I mean “metaphysics through the filter of experience.” The ardent scientist might derisively call this approach “science without the hassle of experimentation.” While I think philosophy is no substitute for science, I also think science is no substitute for philosophy, and the two ought to go together as they did before the 18th (or 17th) century. The core of this approach is determining the distinctions between experience, imagination, imagined experience, and experienced imagination. I think there is a need for considerations from the field of aesthetics in determining just how we so casually mentally suspended reality to allow ourselves to be “drawn into” books, shows, plays, and now videogames. Until science can probe the brain effectively, it is here that we ask questions like “If movies and videogames become visually indistinguishable from reality, will the two media also be equally experiential?” And I think most phenomenologists (particularly Merleu-Ponty) answer “No.”

3) Catharsis. Until my last year of college, I did not know that the ancient Greeks performed their plays as part of very big festivals, a core part of which was tremendous mourning and wailing and weeping in response to the tragedy presented before them. Knowing this gives context to why Plato despises poets and playwrights, and why Aristotle thinks this is even a subject worth discussion. There are two understandings of what Aristotle meant by Catharsis in this context. One school holds that he thought it was important to let loose a torrent of emotion in the way the Greeks culturally did, and so cleanse their emotions. A different approach is that Aristotle believed emotions were to be expressed in the right way and for the right reason, and the expression of sorrow, as a community, at a tragic story, is an appropriate expression of emotion. We might ask whether hyper-real videogames are a positive outlet of catharsis, and it may be that the answer turns on the sort of videogame one plays.

Baudrillard famously addressed issues of simulation in the post-modern context. He probably argued that as we understand reality in terms of simulation, our reality becomes the simulation, and the simulation becomes our reality. For him, this was a way of understand post-modern society, politics, economics, and culture. A version of his reasoning might one day become a way of understanding our relationship with technology we used to call videogames.

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Dragonrend: The Power Of Language is the Expression of Ideas

Language is a difficult and important thing. It is the bridge between two minds. Skyrim subtly poses a question about what happens when those two minds are phenomenological incompatible (experience reality in different ways).

     I recently finished the main storyline in Skyrim (I’m usually not very fast at finishing videogames). I was quite pleased with the story’s depth and writing quality. My favorite part, by far, was the idea of the Dragonrend shout. For those who haven’t played Skyrim, “Shouts” are a sort of magical spell the player can employ in the game. The story holds that the famous fire-breath associated with mythical dragons is actually the ability of the dragon to speak (or shout) in a way that its voice commands  and becomes a force in itself. This interpretation of the dragon allows for great writing opportunities, as the very concept of “words” and “speech” have a rich history in human (especially Western) civilization and history.

     In gameplay, the Dragonrend shout has the effect of temporarily weakening a dragon, forcing it to rest on the ground (rather than fly overhead), thereby making it easier to attack with a sword (or even an easier target for arrows). It is extremely helpful in defeating dragons (especially if you have specialized in melee weapons).

     The Dragonrend shout is enormously philosophically interesting for a few reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with what the shout is, what it refers to, what it represents for humanity, and what it implies about language and experience. Language is sometimes discussed as technology, and this makes Dragonrend interesting because it was invented by humans, not passed on from dragons. While it is spoken in the Dragon language, it is not entirely comprehensible to dragons. As far as I can tell, it exposes the dragon to the concept of morality, temporality, and the finite. The implications of this are delightful.  Is this shout an interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous “Abyss” or the “Despair” spoken of by so many nihilists and existentialists? Does the shout summarize Being and Nothingness, thereby weakening the dragon’s will to go on? Is the struggle of a Dragon to comprehend the finite analagous to the struggle of a human to comprehend the infinite? If so, is the effect of Dragonrend similar to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime, in which we experience an aesthetic awe when presented with sheer vastness (such as the stars in the sky or tremendous landscapes)? Is Dragonrend a blend of aesthetic pleasure and agonizing despair?

     More interesting than “what” the shout is, is the question of “why” it works. Can language bring us to perceive what we cannot phenomenologically experience? What is the relationship between the phenomena we experience (or may possibly experience) and the language that describes it? The effect of the Dragonrend shout seems connected to the question of how our experience relates to the language we employ to describe our experience. How can words expose our minds to what we cannot comprehend or experience? (For that matter, what is the connection between comprehension and experience?) This is what I loved about the concept of Dragonrend in the game Skyrim. This device synthesized gameplay and story in a way that opened up speculation both in the gameworld and in the real world.

     More generally,  this is an example of where I think most good videogames are right now: Games don’t often directly educate, but I think they often provide a great deal of material that is ripe for teaching. Skyrim doesn’t quite posit philosophical questions of language as explicitly as Deus Ex poses questions of humanism, cyborg theory, or post-humanism. But for those who are curious, interactive simulations of stories are tremendous resources for exploring any issue the game designers choose to present.