Friday, August 1, 2008

Communal immersion, ancient and modern

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.

3D Movie audience

After Odysseus gets what he wants from Demodocus at the end of Book 8 of the Homeric Odyssey, and Alcinous has stopped Demodocus from singing so that he can ask why the hell Odysseus is crying into a curtain, Odysseus does, to a certain extent, fulfill his part of the bargain he made with the bard to sing the bard’s praises if the bard sang his. In the process, he gives us what I would hold up as a candidate for the first depiction of immersion in the Western literary tradition:
Surely indeed it is a beautiful thing to listen to a singer
such as this one here, like the gods in his singing;
for I, at least, think there is no practice that is more pleasurable
than when happiness arises among all the people,
and the feasters throughout the palace listen to a singer,
sitting in order. . .
But your spirit was inclined to ask me about my mournful
sufferings, so that I must mourn and grieve even more.
What then first, what last should I recite to you?
It’s the “sitting in order” listening to the singer and its connection to the pleasure of the occasion (a superlative pleasure at that, since Odysseus says there’s no other practice that has more pleasure), that I think makes it immersion. We know this image well from our own culture as well—it’s the same thing that happens at a really good movie, when a hundred people are sitting in their seats not noticing that there are other people next to them, not even aware that they themselves are breathing, so transported are they by the story.

There are plenty of other moments in the Odyssey that I could point to as filling out this picture, above all the moment when Odysseus pauses in his own story and the Phaeacians “stay, stricken to silence,” but the picture of a community immersed is the one I want to focus on, because it seems at first so different from what goes on in our game-rooms or at our computers, when we’re playing a game like Oblivion or Halo.

There may be something to be mourned, there, if we stop getting together to sit in order throughout the palace, but I doubt we will stop (especially since sports are going to go on, seeing that we have bodies, WALL*E notwithstanding, and people aren’t going to stop liking to act out plays).

Much more important, however, is the assured survival of the fundamentally imaginative, creative, and positive construction of community through immersion. What Odysseus is talking about is a cultural practice that had a crucial role in making the just-starting-out ancient Greek city-state (the famous idea of the polis) what it was, and what it became. The word I translate “pleasure,” is kharis which also, and more radically, means “reciprocal benefit.” In the early city-state, kharis made the community go round—people bearing kharis towards one another made up the fabric of the growing society.

That kharis is there in gaming culture. I would suggest that it’s more there in gaming culture than it is in film culture (though cineasts form some strong communities too!). The connection between the imaginative activity of gaming and the bonds we gamers form with one another is almost mystical. Those bonds are expressed the more strongly in the strong things we will occasionally say to one another, and hopefully be sorry afterward. Those bonds also enliven us to an extent so great that we will sometimes find our commitment to our gaming communities coming into conflict with our commitment to the communities of our families. Is it not so?

“Almost mystical,” I wrote, but not completely mystical, I would say. I believe that that connection is susceptible of analysis, and I intend to analyze it. Good thing for me Odysseus is intent, as the story of his adventures begins, on making it clear why he thinks he can out-bard the bard, and tell a story that produces an immersion even deeper than Demodocus’ produces, and that will form precisely the community that will worship the ground Odysseus walks on, and bring him home.

Next time: it’s not all about you, Odysseus! (Or is it?)