Wednesday, May 25, 2011


This is a still from one of the thirty different areas in my 2002 interactive piece "CAVE" which I'm in the process of modifying into a video.

Where We Are

A central metaphor applied to human life is the metaphor of where we are. We use descriptions of location not just for the physical place we inhabit, but as a metaphor for anything that might happen to us. We naturally express our state of being as a relationship to our surroundings. When someone says, ”I’m in a tight place” or “I’m in the clear” we get it. We understand how it feels to be in that place. What gives the metaphor substance is the way movement is affected. Being thwarted by obstacles, being lost or unsure which way to turn, are nuanced opposites of smooth passage. A clear unobstructed view is equated with understanding. The more we see the more we know. Universals of being human are constructed by our shared experience of moving in the world. These are the archetypes, felt patterns of being that guide perception. Having more space is generally a positive, equated with freedom of action, thought, emotions. Having less space tends toward the negative, less freedom of movement, less space on your calendar, less room in a relationship, less mental space when the mind is cluttered. Though we might like it cozy, we don’t like being confined and resist what binds our movement. We build our concepts with this shared understanding of what moving around in the world feels like and it’s mapped in our hippocampus, gatehouse to long-term memory. Memories are tied to where they happened. Whatever tools are used to interact with the world are woven into the patterns of behavior that build around that space. What scientists call our peripersonal space includes whatever we can use to explore the world, mapped as extensions of the limbs involved. Cortical space grows with whatever we do most. If you spend a good part of the day dialing your cell phone with your thumb you would likely see an enlarged area for your thumb in a scan of your brain. Whatever capabilities you’re using have corresponding parts of the brain that are growing with that use. And the presence of the phone is mapped in as the location of the behavior. The size of our space has increased in the age of computers. Now where we can be extends into cyberspace. Though virtual, as a new location for our minds to go, it is also mapped in our brain. Now the options of our various actions in relation to the computer and phone create an intricate network of branching connections, personal maps of growing complexity. Since the brain developed to its current size because it needed inner maps to move around, having an enlarged space for movement, even if virtual, could lead to another level of evolution for our minds. Our inner model of reality would broaden and deepen. When I created my interactive piece, “CAVE”, my hope was to create a psychological space where fears and anxieties could be explored and gently recognized without judgment. It was meant to encourage curiosity and reward it with surprises (dopamine). Video games offer so many possibilities for places that could encourage positive qualities. As the computer links with the wide screen TV, game channels could become as widespread and varied as the passive channels that mesmerize and offer no challenges. Real learning channels and discovery channels and think tank channels could combine multiplayer game learning with collaborative problem solving. What kinds of places can be imagined offers the potential for tremendous growth in the perceptual understanding that underlies wisdom. Where we are is at a threshold of unity.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dynamic Stillness


The first book I’m putting on my summer reading list is a new book with the wonderful title “Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”. The optimism of the title was expressed enthusiastically by the author, Jane McGonigal, in a recent radio interview. She described how games can change behavior, treat depression and anxiety, and tap into skills that young people have developed through the games they’ve already played. Instead of just shooting, games can be designed that engage problem solving skills, creative thinking and shift emphasis from competition to cooperation. There is a realm of possibilities here that we probably haven’t begun to imagine. The author describes new games that develop our minds and abilities, and open better opportunities for learning in a venue where anything can be simulated. This raises the fascinating question of where we could go that we can’t in reality, and by the repeated training through technology, developing powers we humans don’t currently have. Anthropologists have pointed out how the brain jumped in size after we started using tools. They provided a new level of involvement with physical reality that included building, modifying, weighing and counterbalancing. Each new physical act brought with it new metaphors for thinking about building our future, modifying our plans, weighing our alternatives and counterbalancing risks.
Given the complexity of the new tools in our midst, it seems reasonable to expect another jump in the capacities of our brains. It might give us a chance to cultivate values that could lead to a more harmonious society. This may be the most important area where imagery can foster a more positive evolution in our human minds. We can reshape the foundation that guides thought from a model based on separateness and competing ideas and values, to one that shows the interconnectedness of everything and our participation in intelligent organization seen in everything around us.
Video and computer games offer the possibility of expanding human consciousness.
The entertainment goals of the industry have used most of the development dollars thus far, but in the realm of education there’s plenty to still be explored. Classroom games that feature collaboration could develop the sense of pleasure we get from working together. Rewards for discovery of what’s new can help people out of old mindsets that distrust what’s unfamiliar and cultivate instead a taste for difference. The brain is already designed to support novelty seeking, producing dopamine to stimulate even more interest. The visual nature of screen based media opens the way for development of visual reasoning that would build on abilities favored by video games, discerning the significant detail, the inconsistency in a picture, the anticipation of the next step in a pattern, which could lead to skills in perceiving deeper level more complex patterns. The military has long used simulation for training. It should be possible to use it to add sophistication to our ability to conceptualize.
Most video games now are spatially organized but can do all kinds of things that real space can’t. Since memory is spatially organized we might be able to introduce difficult concepts like multiple dimensions in a way that makes sense to the visual brain. One Superbowl commercial had a character walking from room to room and the wall becomes the floor in each successive room, regular gravity is ignored. And we adjust with it. There was a remarkable experiment at the end of the nineteenth century where the subject wears prism glasses that turn the entire visual field upside down. By the end of a week wearing them, the wearer saw the world right side up again, adapting to whatever it has to do to function in the world. This capacity could be used to understand deeper level interconnection in the patterning we participate in. What kinds of simulations would encourage a deep sense of interconnection to the world? Seeing everything as extensions of ourselves we would naturally care for it.
It’s a potential that can only be played out visually, finding representations that can help us see the linkages between complex systems and the constants in their functioning.
Today’s young people have been conditioned to the attitude that easy is good, robbing them of the pleasure of really getting lost in something that demands full attention. The state of flow in the peak experience occurs with the maximum challenge we can handle. Self-consciousness and time disappear in the ongoing response to feedback which keeps attention completely in the here and now of the action. When you’re deeply involved you feel most alive, experiencing the very best brain chemistry. Video games have provided a version of this experience for young people and are an ideal format for new kinds of challenges. With the rising popularity of playing with many others on line, it’s not hard to envision game designs that help us finally make the shift from a machine model of reality to an organic, multiple systems one that could in fact “change the world”.