Level-headed

//A discussion of Inception, Saint Teresa’s El Castillo Interior and gamification. The original draft was written around six months ago after having watched Inception. Couldn’t quite get what I wanted to say to stick at the time but the recent rise of the gamification movement has helped to sharpen thinking on the matter and this is now as postable as it’s going to get.

***

Where to start with a film as readily suggestive as Inception? Let me list a few things that came immediately to mind when watching it.

1. The structured drama of an interior journey of the mind, the layered progression through a series of levels of increasing importance, has many contemporary and older equivalents. One such antecedent that came to mind was Saint Teresa of Ávila’s El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle).

2. The levelled makeup of the movie and several of its other features are indirectly reminicent of videogames. The germ of videogame aesthetics was planted deep in the consciousness of a generation of players many years ago, and we are increasingly starting to see such technologically mediated inception play out in interesting ways throughout the culture as a whole. With the recent examples of films like Inception and Scott Pilgrim, the particular feedback loop between film and videogames now seems to be reaching something like a watershed moment for the influence of videogames upon films.

3. Inception is about as subtle as a freight train plowing through the middle of a crowded metropolitan street. Imagine what its director Christopher Nolan might have achieved had he dispensed with things like the generic and utterly tedious gun battles, the comically awful repeated image of the white van waiting to hit the water and the mundane choice of big money corporate espionage as a narrative device around which to base its intellectual and emotional elements. Andrei Tarkovsky’s magisterially slow-paced Stalker is an acquired taste for many, but in Tarkovsky’s case we witness a film that shares a few of the same lofty conceits and aims of Inception without ever sacrificing the overall integrity of its attempt. In the place of Inception’s reckless freight train, we have in Stalker both the humble handcar that transports the characters to the Zone and the unseen train that finishes the film off with a more deserved – because more brittle and delicately balanced – sense of teetering catharsis (Jay David Bolter argues here that Inception represents a challenge of the videogame aesthetic of flow to the cinematic aesthetic of catharsis).

interior castles (cover to Riverhead Hardcover edition)

Returning to Saint Teresa’s El Castillo Interior (written in 1577), I’ve had it in mind in the past to draw parallels between this text and videogames, and Inception makes for a useful bridging point between the two. There are several similarities between the mental architectures that both Inception and St Teresa lay out in their respective fashions. One clear parallel is the way that both the text and the film present an idea of interior castle-like structures of the mind that must be, in a way, breached in order to achieve certain goals. Both also share a notion that these mental interiors consist of progressively more difficult to access levels (Dante’s Divine Comedy, scientology and videogames being other examples of such a strong focus on progressive levelling in their structures). In his analysis of Teresa’s text, ‘The fiction of the Soul, Foundation of The Interior Castle’ (in The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries), Michel de Certeau portrays her thinking as representing the “architectural symbolism of medieval thought.” In what will probably initially read as a rather liberal form of dot-joining, I would like to consider whether Inception (and also gamification) might be said to represent a similar kind of architectural symbolism of early 21st century thought, and to explore what different aspects of our media landscape might inform the features of such an architecture. The following Hans Belting quote can serve as a kind of overview to several of the main themes and critical approaches to be touched on below:

Our images, says Stiegler, do not exist by themselves or of themselves. They live in our mind as the “trace and inscription” of images seen in the outside world. Media constantly succeed in changing our perception, but we still produce the images ourselves.
(Hans Belting, ‘Image, Medium, Body’, also Bernard Stiegler, ‘The Discrete Image’, in Derrida and Stiegler, Echnographies of Television: Filmed Interviews)

With regards to the aesthetics informing the symbolic architectures of Inception, Nolan claims to be at pains to give a solid and real world tinge to proceedings. “For Inception, Mr. Nolan said, he tried to emulate [Michael] Mann’s ‘approach to using real-life locations and achieving photographic texture through shooting in the real world’” (NY Times). Nolan also aimed, wherever possible, to have visual effects occurring on camera. “Inception does have major computer effects: Several vivid sequences show a dream metropolis in churning calamity, a city skyline seems to fold in on itself as a dream begins to lose its shape and, unlike many Hollywood versions of dream surrealism, the scene has the look of a massive mechanical failure, not a morphing, liquid calamity. Nolan’s dreams have the sharp edges of Escher, not the syrup drips of Dalí” (Geoff Boucher, LA Times). Nevertheless, a digitized mindset is indirectly hinted at in several elements of the film: the instantly fashioned and refashioned worlds, the notion of mental material as bits of data that can be accessed, partitioned or even installed (via inception) within someone’s mind, the references to viruses, and the nested hierarchy of the dreamworlds themselves. Some suggest (Maria Engberg, ‘Polyaesthetics, Proprioception and Inception’) that current representations of the subconscious in popular films such as Inception and The Matrix may be said to represent a shift from the more fluid and surrealist aesthetic landscapes characteristic of many filmed dream scenes in previous generations of filmmakers to, at least at first glance, more sharply modeled understandings of the mind in contemporary fields such as cognitive theory, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

interior decorator (still from Inception)

In regards to drawing a direct comparison between Inception and St Teresa’s writings, I was able to find one online piece that compares the two: Father Robert Barron’s ‘Inception and the Journey Within.’ Barron sees the film as capturing a cultural strain of “relentless secularism.” Given some of the godlike powers granted to the characters within the film’s dreamworlds, such a reading comes as little surprise and brings to mind the way in which dwellers in today’s range of virtual domains are typically granted a whole host of technologically mediated powers that can indeed impart a sense of being almost superhuman. Many would view such technological empowerment as a largely secular form of engagement, and while Inception rarely touches directly on the use of technology in the way that a film like The Matrix does, it is at least crossing wires with the technological and digitally charged mindset. In regards to gamification, it also isn’t difficult to draw parallels to the obsessive gamer, stimulated by the powerful energy of such fantastical experiences and chasing after whatever virtual achievement or levelling up may be on the cards. This kind of obsessiveness may not seem to match the kind of “edifying” spiritual edifice that St Teresea has in mind, but there is a kind of relentless devotion to such virtual tasks that is not far off Teresa’s own fervent cause. Di Caprio’s character Cobb is a man so absorbed by the logic of the mental makeup as he understands it that he can go as far as locking away an apparition of his wife with all the best will in the world. This is not far removed from St Teresa’s embrace of what she calls a “celestial madness,” the acceptance that this is not a normal way to put one’s mind (and body) to work, but that the necessity and intensity of the experience can be such that one quickly forgoes and forgets everything else.

But more than setting up a kind of quest narrative of agony and ecstasy, there is a sense in which these interior architectures, with their various structural logics and elaborate dimensions, capture and captivate the imagination in the way in which they create an enticing space for a heady brand of mental gymnastics that can be liberating for those who are willing to accept the seemingly unreal (and potentially unstable or unsettling) foundations upon which they lie. This is similar to the way in which videogames typically create virtual worlds in which much of the pleasure for the player lies in learning the particular game world’s conventions, full of artificial boundaries and limitations, which the player then works to explore and master so as to eventually be able to bound across the imaginary terrains in a variety of ways that can be both liberating and deeply satisfying. It seems little surprise that with the rise of such gaming activities we see a coinciding surge in the popularity of something like parkour (free running), which sprouts up alongside these virtual forms of free running (to the degree that parkour itself has now, in turn, become a staple feature in film action sequences and videogames). In parkour, real world architecture takes on characteristics of the game world (see this video for a quite literal example of this). It becomes an object of play and release for the free runner. Perhaps then it could be suggested that the popularity of television shows like Lost and a film like Inception represents a like-minded penchant for a kind of cognitive parkour. There is a sense of relish in the challenge that these complex yet enticing puzzle like structures present the subject with. Things take on the aspect of the castle that beckons with its layered mythic architecture, a structure that suggests a fabled place worth breaching (again, this also bears strong parallels to the notion of firewalls and hacking that so througoughly permeates the digital landscape). The mind, in both St Teresa and Inception, is this very castle. St Teresa’s highly suggestive metaphorical and mythical shorthand of a castle is surrounded on the outside by “reptiles and other creatures,” and is swarming on the inside with “many legions of evil spirits in each room to prevent souls from passing from one to another” (sound familiar gamers?). With study and practice one can discover the various footholds with which to decipher and vault across the interior walls that attempt to impede a more faithful or “freer” understanding of things. But, as both texts remind their audiences, the pitfalls remain – there are multiple ways to get lost when navigating such labyrinths.

As the example of parkour hints at, the similarities between St Teresa’s thinking and Inception do not end in their shared interior architectures. Both acknowledge the limits of the exterior, “real world” self, in the classic sense that these exterior corporeal existences can distract and intrude on the interior matters that is their prime focus. Cobb and his dream companions cloister themselves off in industrial complexes, basements, and aeroplanes, just as Teresa shuts herself off from the outside world within the confines of a convent. It may be a rather bandied about and often misused trope of our time, but one does detect some similarity in the way that some children today are indulged with indoor digital distractions as a way of keeping them away from the more tangible, “real” dangers of the outside world. Whether knowingly or not, we often see such an interior logic unwittingly disciplining and cloistering the exterior self. The gamer seeks to save the mythical princess, while confining him or herself up in a bedroom tower of their own. There is a braided logic at play (reference to the videogame Braid intended). Cobb becomes something like a male programmer version of the “mad woman in the attic” authorial type from literary theory, somone who, without meaning to, ends up continually creating his own mad woman in the basement within the dream worlds he frequents. This again suggests something like a cognitive partitioning and architectural mindset, a “level-headedenss,” in which it appears possible and even logical to cloister oneself from exterior intrusions, and by which interior issues themselves can be isolated and confined to particular kinds of ostensibly more structured and navigable forms of mental space.

attic hideaways (level layout for the game Braid)

The architectural bent of both of these procedurally minded scripts is in their focus on creating a “spatial mould” which can act as a form of “internal theatre” (de Certeau) in which these fictions of the soul can be played out. De Certeau shows how Thomas More uses the spatial concept of the island in his book Utopia as a “framework of discourse,” a “notational space” that “organizes a space of transcription.” The belieavability of such spaces lies in their ability to convince the particular user. In stating her particular case, St Teresa draws from the strong architectural symbolism of the medieval castle, but also relies on what de Certeau terms the “space creating authorities” of both spiritual and explicitly male religious authorities who, as we are informed on several occasions during proceedings (perhaps in order to fend off any mad woman in the attic like accusations), have supervised her texts. Thus we are presented with a notion of editorial space creating authorities, which is indeed very similar to what we see in Inception. Cobb discovered how his wife Mal could be made susceptible to the editing of her own thoughts, while St Teresa suggests throughout that she wants nothing more than to let the pure, unedited spirit of her god into her head so that her writings will reflect his editorial will. Note that Cobb in Inception has in some sense taken on the role that St Teresa grants to her god (little wonder then that Father Barron reads the piece in the way that he does). Note also that in both examples we see ways in which, “The feminine spoken word insinuates itself within the masculine circumscription of writing” (de Certeau). Of course in Cobb’s case he has given the godlike task of world generation to the young Ariadne, but there is in all of this something of a sense of a recourse to the letrados (“great” men of learning), who, in acting as authoritative guardians, maintain the allotted boundaries, and whose role is typically characterised as being that of the firm, “level-headed” presence that enforces particular kinds of conformity within their particular domains. What we also discover is that the same mindset that seeks to confine and isolate what it perceives as particular kinds of unwanted mental distractions, is itself infected by this very notion of partitioning. It easily ends up seeking such an artificially ordered structure everywhere, erecting walls within walls and levels within levels, to the point that such a mind is no longer able to (or even wants to) consider the confining nature of its own structuring logic.

some say their brains were infected by levels... (Eric Wesselow's McLuhan - in fact McLuhan's own thinking typically acts more as a great leveller)

This treatise on the soul, prayer, and mystic discourse (or intinerary) is undoubtedly part of a long Socratic and spiritual tradition of the “know thyself,” but it displaces that tradition from the outset in translating it into two other questions: “Who else lives inside of you?” and “To whom do you speak?” A problematic of being and consciousness is rerouted from the onset toward illocution, that is, toward a diaogal structure of alteration – “you are the other of yourself.” The soul becomes the place in which that separation of self from itself prompts a hospitality, now “ascetic,” now “mystic,” that makes room for the other. And because that “other” is infinite, the soul is an infinte space in which to enter and receive visitors.
(de Certeau)

Who else lives inside of you? How hospitable is your own interior space and what structure might it be said to have? Sometimes we unwittingly let others and other things into our mental spaces. Countless media theorists have described the way in which mediums themselves influence our understandings of both the world around us and that within us. From their very “inception,” computers have clearly provided a powerful model for thinking out new models of understanding in a variety of fields, including the notable example of cognitive science. The computer (and now the internet), as a non-human entity capable of capturing so much of human endeavour, proves a highly charged resource with which we can reconsider various long-held notions of being and self-hood. Digital cyberspace is just such an infinite space along the lines that de Certeau outlines in the passage above, one that allows us to, in various ways, separate (or partition) the self from itself. And naturally we learn to form new understandings of ourselves through the spaces that such digital architectures open up for us. For some (the singularity movement being one example) this is not just any space but one of almost inevitable mental and even spiritual progression along the lines that St Teresa has in mind. This is nothing new. Technologies are themselves “extensions” of our being (McLuhan), and the banner of progress which typically drives their production has long been a favourite and very human pursuit.

pilgrims (Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim - a videogame influenced comic book made into a movie featuring its own accompanying videogame tie-in)

And so (in very roundabout fashion) we arrive at the current debate around gamification. In the gamification camp we see a transposition of many of the above themes into a concrete movement that aims to add “a game layer on top of the world.” There are several reasons why one might choose to do so. For one leading gamification proponent it is because “reality is broken.” As a force that can harness our desires into achieving positive outcomes gamification can address this flawed world we live in, providing structure and goals to the chaos of existence. Sound familiar?

Perhaps it is time to pronounce St Teresa the patron saint of gamification. Her seven stages of progression certainly chime with the levelling up notion at the heart of much of gamification’s thrust. Or consider the metroidvania-style technique employed by faiths of all kinds, whereby certain physical and non-physical areas are marked off as being sacred, with various kinds of barriers erected in order to stagger a path towards salvation. One such example would be the rite of passage, whereby one must achieve certain predetermined goals or demonstrate sufficient levels of skill to be accepted to the next stage of the journey. Indeed, how different, say, is the act of grinding (the obligatory time-sink that many games impose on players, whereby they must carry out often mundane and highly repetitive actions in order to eventually progress further into the game) from that of prayer? Not to mention the classic posture of the gamer – hands clasped together around the controller in prayer-like concentration. And what of the fetch quest, all those ancient and contemporary geocachers in search of the latest holy grail? All of these elements typically combine into hagiographic serenades of the player, building them up from humble beginnings to canonized entities by the time the endgame rolls around.

saints row (from Robbie Cooper's Immersion series documenting children playing video games)

This is not to trivialize such similarities but rather to point out how such structural logics can bring out a strong sense of devotion within many different pursuits. But if gamification is in many ways no different from such precursor examples, why all of the recent controversy over its particular framing of such practices? No doubt there is the natural feeling of unease that any such overt and seemingly blunt application brings to those pursuits that we hold dear, and might just prefer to think of as a more intangible, rarefied and refined magic. Faced with the often over-zealous looking claims of gamification’s current prime movers, it is possible to detect a counteracting tone of what can read like an ascetic piety on the part of many of gamification’s critics (a similar strain of ascetic resistance can also be seen in certain parkour practitioners’ rejection of a competitive and potentially more marketable version of parkour). Taken in such a context, how different do such seemingly secular criticisms of gamification read in comparison with Father Barron’s own critique of Inception?

Now what struck me about Inception was not so much its special effects or twisty plot, but its relentless secularism. As the characters plumb the depths of their own and one another’s psyches, as they delve into the furthest reaches of who they are and what motivates them, neither God nor salvation, nor even psychological growth ever even come up for consideration. The entire purpose of the Inception team is to make money by helping their clients uncover or implant some practically useful bit of information. And this is such a let-down, precisely because the deep exploration of the self has long been appreciated, both in the eastern and western spiritual traditions, as a privileged means of encountering God.
(Father Robert Barron, ‘Inception and the Journey Within’)

One doesn’t necessarily need to come down on one side or the other in the gamification debate. The readily commodifiable nature of gamification is of course an easy target and has proven to be the focus of most criticisms to date. Clearly the notion of “level-headedness” presented in this post has a negative connotation in regards to approaches to living that are based upon adopting a levelling mindset that can unwittingly become relentlessly partitioning in its bent (particularly when it is itself built around a one-dimensional or predetermined and progress-oriented approach to being in the world). This sense of a partitioning mindset can be compared with Bernard Stiegler’s notion of “discretization” (“the breaking into discrete elements”) that occurs in the technical exteriorization (what Stiegler labels “hypomnesis”) of more and more aspects of our memory (see Stiegler’s comments on memory in the Critical Terms for Media Studies reader for a helpful introduction to this terminology). Thus gamifcation might similarly be understood through this lens of Stiegler’s as a kind of “grammatization” of play, in the way that it formally transcribes elements of games and play (gameplay) into a series of discrete and exteriorized elements. In such a process of grammatization, “whereby the currents and continuities shaping our lives become discrete elements,” all aspects of play – and players by extension – can potentially be framed within a structured sequence of readily definable and manipulable set of variables. In this move, play (and whatever other pursuits of life gamification applies its instrumentalisation of play to) moves from a form of potential continuity, freedom and abandon to one of potential limits, control and mastery (with all of the potentially confining and liberating qualities that control and mastery offer).

If it isn’t apparent already, there is also an implicit criticism in the phrase “level-headed” of the plodding earnestness and supposedly edifying spin that such level-headed approaches attempt to put on things. Nolan’s previous film The Dark Knight featured the kind of comically lame ethical dilemmas that we see in so many videogames and it’s rather difficult not to expect that we won’t see a similarly lame stream of gamification applications aimed at “fixing” this “broken” “reality” that we live in. And yet for all their flaws, videogames, even the lamer ones, often have a way of engaging despite their limitations – something that can’t easily be said for other media. There is no reason to think that gamification won’t provide plenty of engaging examples that allow us to open up new spaces of transcription with which to reconsider our mental and physical surroundings (the potential for subversion within such spaces seems encouragingly high in gamification). And to declare something “lame” is of course to don the authoritative robes of the letrado. And what is it about that often particularly fine line that “lame” walks?

Yeah—there’s a funny gap between what people actually enjoy and what they feel is theoretically appropriate for their output as a designer. I’m referring to architects when I say that. I think that many students today, in order to be rigorous to the legacy of Le Corbusier, or to be rigorous to algorithmic design philosophies as laid down through a rereading of Gilles Deleuze in the mid-1990s, feel like they have to produce a certain kind of design—but then they go home and play a videogame, or watch a movie, or even read a fantasy novel or whatever, and they see these vast tree-cities, or old castles on cliffs, or Japanese pagodas the size of whole planets, or derelict mining spaceships, and they actually like that kind of architecture. But it’s exactly what they do not design in the studio. Of course, part of that is the fact that the physical realization of those sorts of ideas very quickly crosses over into kitsch, into the realm of the theme park: that’s Euro Disney or Busch Gardens. Or, for that matter, it’s Dubai.

But I do wonder about this. At the same time that it’d be ridiculous if San Francisco was rebuilt as a mock European village, I also wonder why I think that. Is there not a way to adapt fantasy architectures to the real-world without taking on the air of a kind of Walt Disney postmodernism?
(BLDGBLOG, ‘This Gaming Life: An Interview with Jim Rossignol’)

There is undoubtedly positive potential in exploring how to incorporate aspects of gaming (and not just the levelling ones) to other mediums and into everyday practice. As discussed earlier, it seems fair to see the rise of parkour partly as a celebration of the sense of liberating virtuosity and elegance of movement that videogames can offer. When professional football managers and players talk of playing “Playstation football” (Arsène Wengerthe Xavi experience) it is a compliment of the highest order. There is great beauty to the articulation of the conceptual imagery that St Teresa presents us with – not to mention the image of Teresa herself, dreaming up these liberating passages in the limited confines of the cloister (and that of the male-dominated profession of writing). Others may also find themselves confined in one way or another and to flat out deny the potential of gamification to provide relief or meaning in such situations is churlish at best. Inception meanwhile, for all its narrative and audio-visual bombast, still contains the germs of visually interesting and daring conceptual avenues for the blockbuster film (Hitchcock being a previous high-water mark in this respect). One can also look to the finely attuned gaming culture resonances that the Scott Pilgrim movie riffs ably off of for its own sprightly narrative of soul searching and self discovery.

brain games (from Olly Moss's Big Ideas poster for A Life Well Wasted)

In videogames there are several excellent examples to draw from. In terms of a spiritual element that can be interwoven within a levelling structure, games like Rez or Ikaruga come to mind as fruitful examples. As for the notion of mental architectures as spaces for self exploration, such avenues have already proven wonderfully creative stomping grounds for games like Psychonauts (see a machinima parodying of Inception here) and American McGee’s Alice. The aforementioned Braid also shares many themes with Inception and manages to unravel them in considerably more affective and poignant fashion. These are just the first few examples that come to mind in a medium that hasn’t been around for very long.

I will leave it at that for the moment. A qualified take on the gamification debate, not pushing too hard in one direction or the other. Level-headed.

One thought on “Level-headed

  1. Wow, great piece. Love the inception mental space exploration, this reminds me of an interview I read with a former memory champion that uses house design layouts to remember vast amounts of data. Anywho, just stumbled across this and thought I’d tell you it was a great read. For those who might be interested in gamification in the corporate design sense there is a great blog post Gamification: Game Design In The Real World. http://bit.ly/fFE4FR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s