The Abstraction of Reality

I recently posted a comment on a fellow designer’s blog. She had posted about first amendment rights, and I had commented about the irony of written word censorship over digital medium censorship. To find out if my statement was accurate, I contacted a local nation-wide bookstore to inquire about purchasing a copy of Lolita. I told them that my son (oh god) needed it for a book report and wondered if there would be any problem with him purchasing it since he was sixteen. (Do I sound that old I wonder?) The clerk told me there wouldn’t be.

While I was making this phone call during my work break, one of my coworkers overheard me and wondered what I was talking about. I told him about my statement; how it takes an 18 year old to purchase the movie version of the same book that a 16 year old can purchase. He responded with “Of course, there’s no pictures in the book.”

This, of course, is a common mentality about written word. A book of erotic fiction is never as damaging to one’s sensibilities as a picture of the same content. I pointed out to my coworker that my imagination has an unlimited resolution with far greater detail than any photo could ever have.

All of this lead me to a sort of mini-epiphany. The written word is an abstraction of the spoken word. Written word is just a permanent form of the spoken word, but it loses much of its content during transmission, such as inflection. Spoken word is an abstraction of body language. Before spoken word, our ancestors used grunts and gestures to communicate. Spoken word allows us to express more complex ideas quickly, as long as there is a common denominator (language) amongst communicators.

At SeigeCon this year, I had the fortunate opportunity to listen to a panel, composed of Ian Bogost, Ernest Adams and Dan Greenberg, talk about the idea of Game as Art. To me, Dan stood out on the panel because he didn’t want games to be art. In his explanation, he mentioned a form of communication, what he called the most basic and primal form of communication: mimetic impulse. Mimetic impulse was a method used by our ancestors to communicate. The shaman of the group of tribesmen would setup a ritual of role playing, in which certain members were hunters and the other were prey. By going through these mimetic impulses, the tribe would practice the hunt, allowing the tribe to understand and communicate what would go on in the real world. This is what body language abstracts, the mimetic impulse. And the mimetic impulse is an abstraction of reality.

So what? Well, two things came from this realization. The reason that people aren’t as threatened by written word as they are by pictoral representations is the level of abstraction from reality. Even if the content was the same, such as in Lolita, the abstraction from reality that is given by written word is not as threatening as the pictoral representation. Games are more closely related to the mimetic impulse, the most primal form of communication, which is why it is so powerful at expressing concepts. Because of its interactive instead of passive nature. This is also one of the reasons people fear it, and other digital medium, more than written or even spoken word.

It was a minor revelation, I’m sure, but it was also one of those profound moments that you feel you just need to share with others.

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3 Responses to The Abstraction of Reality

  1. jabberwookie says:

    Lolita might not be the best choice to check book regulations. After all, despite its erotic content, it is considered classic literature. I wonder if there are restrictions placed on novels that are purely pornographic. It might be worth checking out. I know that manga and comic books are regulated with parental advisories, similar to those you find on CDs. Such graphic novels are often wrapped in plastic so that kids can’t read them in the store.

    At any rate, I agree that the written word is perceived as less threatening than other media, but the reason behind that may be as much cultural as it is psychological. We’re taught from a very young age that reading is good. Our teachers were happy to see most of us reading, regardless of what the book was. Since we are taught that reading is fundamentally good, it automatically makes books seem non-threatening, especially when compared with games and television. After all, we’re taught from a young age that books are good for you and TV and games are bad for you.

    I’d also like to point out that if TV, movies, games, and all that didn’t exist today, books would be regulated. If there were no other media to compare them to, books would seem very threatening.

  2. Brian Shurtleff says:

    What immediately jumped to mind with me, is that as Understanding Comics illustrates as well as numerous writings elsewhere on the debate of the image over the word, that the written word is also an extremely abstracted form of an image.

    Kind of confuses your argument with the mimetic impulse, but still holds true with your idea that the abstraction makes it more ‘safe’.
    (actually, writing that just now made me think that the reverse is true in image alone – abstraction of image has been historically considered alien and beastly… hmm)

    But I like the idea you brought it to of why many people fear the medium of the game as it is less abstracted from our most primal form of communication. Of course, a counterargument there is that if its something we all should be connected to you’d think there’d be more mass acceptance of the medium. But I do suppose that that’s not the usually the case as people tend to fear that which is deemed primal in humankind.

    This was sort of a rambling stream of consciousness written after staying up all night. Whoops.

  3. jeffmcnab says:

    Brian, I think possibly that the reason for the fear is because mankind hasn’t used that level of abstractive communication in so long, that they fear it. Written word is seemed as less harmful than the other digital mediums.

    I was actually thinking of Understanding Comics when this originally popped into my head.

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