Penny responds in turn

Penny responds in turn

2004-06-27

Simon Penny re-collects the dimensions of simulation-as-training in martial arts, football, and ballet (not to mention computer games).

At the outset, Jan Van Looy gives a summary of part of my argument which is accurate enough: “Repetitive tasks and active training develop subconscious reflexes and intuitions. This is so even in simulated environments, as evidenced by the fact that such environments are being used for psychological treatment and for various types of military combat training.” Unfortunately he fails to address this central issue of my paper.

“We let our children play violent computer games, which are a type of simulation. Thus we are making our children develop subconscious intuitions, training them to kill people.” Here he wades straight into the popular moralistic debate around computer games, a territory I had intentionally sought to avoid. Regrettably, Mr. Van Looy appears to have read my paper as a diatribe against first person shooters. I am well aware that questioning the ethics of these games provokes ire, and sometimes ridicule, from apologists for gaming. He makes many of the well-known arguments against my purported `anti-violence’ position. Throughout the riposte, he focuses purely on gaming, and specifically on violence in gaming, as if that was the subject of my paper. This is odd; it’s like being mistaken for someone else at a party.

Whatever I think about violence in games, that issue is not central to my inquiry in this paper. My goal was to question how simulation, as a training practice, inculcates new behaviors, and - given the similarity between computer-based simulation and varieties of interactive cultural applications, including games - what implications this might have for the culture of interactivity and the design of interactive systems in general. I take first person shooters as a case example for a part of my argument. It is a hard question, and one which demands a new set of critical tools. My paper set out to explain why this question is hard, and why we need new tools.

In my opinion, `interactive art’ is a field of aesthetic production which requires a new and interdisciplinary set of critical foundations, and demands the creation of a new branch of aesthetics which I have previously termed `the Aesthetics of Behavior.’ Such an aesthetics must move beyond the tired old aesthetics of passive image consumption, rooted as it is in nineteenth century notions of the objectivity of vision and the culture of the aristocratic connoisseur. It must embrace the performative, the phenomenological and networks of sociocultural actors. Van Looy asserts: “Computer games are new.” This is indisputable, they are new, and we do not know what they do. I propose that we have not yet marshaled the critical tools needed to usefully discuss computer automated cultural artifacts. The terms in which interactive cultural practices are critiqued are generally based in critiques of pre-interactive and pre-digital forms, such as film theory and literary theory, and are therefore concerned with the effects of passive image or text on the (more or less) passive consumer. Nothing a reader or a cinema viewer does can alter the trajectory of plot or action. Thus even progressive critiques of non-dynamic cultural forms (books, movies) have no purchase on a medium which responds in real time. It is this enactive (to borrow a term from Varela, Thompson and Rosch) dimension which must be addressed if any meaningful critique of interactive art is to be built.

Van Looy engages in an extended defense of why Doom did not make Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold perpetrate the Columbine massacre, under the presumed and wrong assumption that I blame Doom for the event. I do not claim that Harris and Klebold killed people because they played Doom. I am not fighting that battle. I propose simply, and as a case study of my larger argument, that behaviors learned by extended and repetitive training (playing Doom in this case) may have resulted in learned reactions which may have been triggered by the experiential context of the tragedy. That is not so far fetched, given the well-known effectiveness of simulator training and the demonstrated transferability of skills gained in simulator training.

“Furthermore, if they had written out their fantasies or made drawings, these documents would have been seen as preparation and correctly identified as secondary to the act, not as its cause.” Here Van Looy seems intent on persuading us that Doom is just imagery, and if that imagery were in pre-digital forms, we would not presume to accord it the power to catalyze tragedies. This seems inconsistent. Elsewhere he writes “… I do agree with Penny’s conclusion that theories of visual representation are inadequate to describe participatory media,” but here he defends Doom with an argument that focuses on imagery, ignoring the performative dimension of those images. We do not watch a game, we take active part in its unfolding. In my argument, imagery, narrative and metaphor are ancillary to the crucial quality of interactive media. My stated concern is with learning which occurs below the level of conscious decision-making, and which is then triggered by certain stimuli, without requiring the conscious awareness of the subject.

My argument, as the title states, is about enaction. I assert that long sessions of repeated actions under emotionally intense conditions are very likely to inculcate learned responses to certain contexts. The question my paper asks is: under what circumstances (in the non-gaming context) might they be triggered? It is just possible that for a long term Doom player (for instance), with a gun in hand, under certain sensory and emotional conditions, the drive to shoot at anything that moves may be triggered. My essay argues that there is certainly enough evidence to be gleaned from techniques of bodily training, for war, for martial arts, for football or for ballet, to allow for the possibility that this is a possibility.

Van Looy cites John Sherry on priming and catharsis: “computer games allow players to discharge their aggressive feelings, and negotiate their arousals and anxieties, in a safe environment. As in sports, players can act out aggression that is not allowed in the real world within a rule-governed setting, and feel relieved afterwards.” This argument for catharsis is very similar to those made for pornography and violence in movies. I would prefer to avoid that murky territory. If the catharsis argument holds, this does not, however, invalidate my argument. On the contrary, as in sports, it is possible and not mutually contradictory that playing first person shooters can provide cathartic release and simultaneously train and deeply inculcate behaviors. It is likely that there exist strong connections between the release of endorphins and the establishment and reinforcement of neural pathways.

“…I really do not see how killing a monster in Doom will make it any easier for me to kill another person. Moral judgment cannot be transferred between worlds like basic skills.” As Van Looy’s discussion continues, he seems to abandon the rigorous academic standards he advocated earlier. Perhaps he really doesn’t see how, but he offers no argument or evidence that “Moral judgment cannot be transferred.” I would have thought that the opposite was the case: the parable, and analogy in general, is the basis of much pedagogy. In any case, his statement supports my argument. Well-trained soldiers do not entertain moral judgments; they react to situations in ways they have been trained. U.S. reserves, assigned to convoy driving, are trained (with cardboard cutouts) to run over children on the road. They then do this in Iraq. If they employed moral judgment, they would not run over little children. The idea I am at pains to draw out is precisely that certain kinds of embodied training bypass conscious decision-making - that, after all, is the point of such training. This phenomenon holds as true for tennis players and racecar drivers as it does for soldiers and gamers. This is the central argument of my paper; it is the reason for referencing ethics in the title. It is an argument which gaming advocates and media theorists alike seem unwilling to consider.

“Moreover, I do not agree with Penny that enacting virtual violence is more dangerous for the player than just witnessing it. I believe that the player is constantly aware that she can start again, save or pull the plug.” I have delivered an argument proposing that enacting virtual violence is, at the very least, tangibly different from passive observation, and deserves consideration in those terms. Van Looy counters with an assertion of his beliefs. Whether the player is constantly aware that she can pull the plug has little bearing on the skills she is subconsciously mastering. I do not employ such loaded language as `dangerous.’ Van Looy again confuses my concern about skill acquisition with a discussion of morality and conscious choice.

“…in participatory media there is no “non-fiction.” In the terms he is employing, that is true, and the corollary must also be true: neither is there `fiction.’ The categories of fiction and non-fiction belong to the critical system which I argue is found wanting in the context of `participatory media.’ Van Looy here is attesting to the significance of ongoing experiential engagement in participatory media. This is precisely the argument I make in my paper.

Simon Penny, May 2004

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