Monday, March 23, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 2

In the last essay we outlined a scientific foundation for the argument that games are waking dream simulators based on both psychological research and several definitions provided by Carl Jung. The purpose of this is both to develop a new perspective of video games and to explore various ways they could generate new emotions beyond the basic nightmare conquests they currently provide. For this essay, we are going to go into greater detail about mandalas and how video games can be approached in a similar manner.

The thing about mandalas is that there isn’t really a technical way to put them into words. Since it is a representation of the unconscious, that which is unknown to the conscious mind, you get a bit of variation from people. I explained it as a thought process by which a person achieves a meditative state. One website, mandalazones, defines it as, “an unconscious state in which all opposites come together and are united, where the polar aspects of the cosmos and the individual can become one.” Wikipedia explains that it is a generic term for a chart or graph that represents the cosmos metaphysically. Jung believed that it was a fully realized representation of the unconscious. A Celtic Cross could be considered a mandala just as much as a Muslim Mosque. Intrinsic to most of the definitions is the concept that the mandala is about a unification or coming together of principles. The Celtic Cross represents the interlocking nature of the trinity while the Mosque is a series of precise geometric unities that are considered divine. Mapping the galaxy as one means showing the elegance of the stars and their movements, showing one that represents your unconscious means showing all of the elements of your being coming together.

In terms of video games, the mandala is the game experience. It is game design, art, sound, controls, and playtime all coming together to become a coherent experience.

In much the same way that describing a game to someone can sound odd or not really capture the essence of it, a mandala on its symbolic surface doesn’t really say a whole lot. While doing an extensive study of one particular patient Jung lists off several mandalic symbols: a snake encircling the dreamer, observing a blue flower, or kicking a red ball. To go in-depth on just one: the snake mandalic symbol was composed of several elements. Snakes typically induce circular movement or action in the dreamer. This necessitates that there is a central element or focus to this circular action, something that the dreamer is revolving around which is not focused on themselves. This central element in the dream is the message the unconscious is attempting to communicate with the conscious mind through the mandalic experience. As Jung puts it, the unconscious is attempting to get the conscious mind to realize something and it must rely on this strange language of dreams and mandalas to do it.

Turning this into video game terminology, each dream is a level. Each one has various elements of design that induce behavior, visuals that mean something, and they all culminate in communicating a final message to the subject that is crossing from their unconscious to the conscious. In Jung’s case, the dreamer ended up achieving a personal revelation about himself. This was shown in a dream about travelling to the center of the universe and watching this giant golden…clock thing move in perfect unity while angels were singing. It is here that we run into our first hiccup with comparing games and dreams: the ultimate conclusion of the individual’s dreams is personal. Even Jung admits that he does not really understand what the clock means or why the dreamer found it so profound. He points out that the mandala cannot be an archetype because in his case studies that final psychological breakthrough, the merging of the unconscious and conscious, is different for each person. Whereas the archetype is a dream mechanic or game design that we all have the same reaction to, the mandala is something inherently unique. In much the same way, the individual’s ultimate game experience is left to similar circumstances.

The rules which govern this process are mechanically similar to games. Jeremy Taylor, who is a Unitarian Minister with over twenty years of experience in dream therapy, has a wealth of observations on how dreams work to communicate. In his book Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill he mentions several repeating themes he has seen in group work. There is a correlation in dreams between color and emotion, “The more aware the dreamer is of the colors in his/her dreams, the more likely it is that the dreamer is consciously aware of his/her emotional life, and the emotional lives of others, when awake.” Taylor explains that this is typically seen in men who claim to only dream in black & white who repress their emotions. In games this can be seen when the game is attempting to pull the player away from becoming emotionally involved and instead focus on combat or tactics. The richness of your color palette in a game subconsciously makes people more invested and emotionally aware than in a grey or brown game. Contrast Call of Duty to Fl0wer and you can see the correlation in games generating emotions in the player.

When Jung is explaining the mechanics of the mandala he goes into what he alluded to with the snake dream: there is a central goal and the mandalic activity is one amongst three others surrounding this center. The center is the golden clock epiphany that the mandalas are trying to induce in the dreamer. Jung points out that with his patients there are almost always four mandalic experiences per person or recurring dream types. There are occasional cases where a person will have three or five, but one of the mandalas will often be fighting with another one to get attention in the dreamer due to some psychosis. Video games have an equally bizarre relationship with quaternaries. Jesper Juul, when talking about making Bejeweled 2, notes a funny discovery they had about puzzle games. People don’t like hexagons for some reason. They only like to play matching games when the blocks move in 4 directions. Jung’s mandalic rule applies here because the game, resonating with our unconscious, cannot get us to think beyond 4 activities or possible movements at one time. Taylor confirms this when he notes that the average dream contains at most 4 active characters that can be remembered. Anything higher and the dreamer begins to forget information.

This brings us back to the entire question of what exactly our minds are absorbing when we play games. Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun’ argues that we are enjoying mastering rules and life skills applicable to life. Bogost’s ‘Procedural Rhetoric’ argues that a message is being communicated by our interaction with a series of rules. What a comparison between dreams and games declares is that you are inducing a subconscious message through your game experience that, when successful, is realized by the conscious mind.

This process, the unconscious message merging with the conscious mind through dreams, is called individuation. Consciousness, as Jung defines it, is the act of moving away from nature. Whether you want to get biblical about the ‘Fruit of knowledge’ or just biological about the evolutionary needs of a species, “Everything in us that still belongs to nature shrinks away from a problem, for its name is doubt, and wherever doubt holds sway there is uncertainty and the possibility of divergent ways. Consciousness is now called upon to do that which nature has always done for her children – namely, to give a certain, unquestionable, and unequivocal decision.” In this sense the unconscious is then our instincts, an invisible guiding principle about what we should do. Jung says this is technically unknowable to the conscious mind, because then it becomes conscious and has crossed over into a decision we are making. The ultimate goal, for Jung and with his patients, was to get people to accept this part of themselves. The animal instincts, the conscious mind, the repressed memories…people are typically fragmented and he believed that a healthy individual must instead unify these elements. For Taylor, his dream therapy was about getting people to accept parts of themselves in order to overcome deeper psychosis. He explains, “These ugly, scary, dark, powerful, sexy, violent, irresponsible, dangerous dream figures are vitally alive parts of my own authentic being, and you know what – they aren’t so horrible after all.”

What is our conscious relationship with the game design mandala? It is still a kind of individuation, an unconscious message being transmitted to the conscious mind. Except now the mandala is an artificial construct, an alien symbol and mode of behavior that we are adopting. This is not to be confused with changing a person’s mind or brainwashing them. The unconscious is not malleable. Jung argues, “It is and remains beyond the reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can be neither improved upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.” In other words, you cannot change someone’s mind through this process.

This is not to say that observing or absorbing an alien mandala is not without benefit. Taylor explains that working alone with your dreams is both difficult and can end with self-deception. In each of his groups a person recounts their dream and the other members respond by saying “If that were my dream…” then explaining how they would relate to those symbols and what it would mean to them. By having a person discuss the alien dream, the subject is often able to gain insight beyond their immediate reactions and self-deception. In many cases these realizations, this individuation with the unconscious, will occur for the person applying the alien dream to themselves as well. It gives them a new perspective on their own dreams and helps them make more sense. The video game is then an alien dream, one in which Taylor’s therapeutic device of pretending the dream is your own is made literal.

What is the language of this communication? How can we borrow from it in order to make our artificial dream still resonate and be received by the conscious mind? Here we encounter yet another hiccup: mandalic symbols are just as customized to the dreamer as their final message. Jung explains, ““All that can be ascertained at present about the symbolism of the mandala is that it portrays an autonomous psychic fact, characterized by a phenomenology (Ed. – the idea that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness) and not of anything independent of human consciousness which is always repeating itself and is everywhere the same….the compelling force necessary for this projection always lies in some situation where the individual no longer knows how to help himself in any other way.” The video game must then provide all of these things independently and introduce the subject to them. It must create both a compelling force in the person, possibly through plot or relying on a pre-existing notion such as being successful, followed by a means to attain this status.

But if the symbols of the mandala are individually created, what can a game use to communicate to a larger group of people? It is here that we must begin to rely on archetypes and mythological figures. Taylor explains how his group work is able to be so universal, ““The language of the dream is our original native tongue, a common language shared by all human beings…this universal, cross-cultural, common language of the dream is also shared by the world’s mythology and religious texts and rituals.” This is the reason why dream groups work: someone can hear your dream, apply it to themselves, and create understanding for both participants. In the last essay I described an archetype as the equivalent of a game design and that still holds true. They are inherently blank or malleable activities, people, symbols, or situations that produce a predictable response in people. Jung explains the archetypes this way, “They are, so to speak, the psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same each of these images there is a little piece of human psychology and human fate, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our ancestral history, and on the average follow ever the same course.” The wise old man that represents wisdom and intellect, the female figure that we constantly pursue, or the emotions we feel when asked to protect someone. These archetypes, these universal dream symbols, are the means by which a video game can communicate with us.

Which is what the next essay will be about. The topic of archetypes is still large but blissfully requires a much smaller leap of faith from the reader. These are things that can be named, defined, and categorized for your scrutiny. There are also literally countless archetypes in the human mind, just as there are no doubt countless game designs. When the series is complete it will be condensed like the Bangs and Kael pieces and posted on Popmatters while taking into account your feedback. Thank you for your time.

Edit: To make you life easier, here is Part 3.


David Sahlin said...

Now that I think about it, I cannot recall if I've ever dreamed about playing a video game. Can anyone else? Is it too redundant in some fashion?

L.B. Jeffries said...

I've had several where I was watching someone play a game or where I was playing one myself. That said, content from games rarely transfers into my dreams, which is something many people experience and the research also found.

David Sahlin said...

I've had content from games in my dreams, I'm fairly certain. Great essay, nonetheless!

Craig said...

Back in my "addicted to Starcraft" days, I would definitely dream "Starcraft." Sometimes I would just have dreams where I was watching the screen or just have the visuals themselves as my dream. Other times, I remember having other stories "pasted over" a SC map. I'll admit I can't remember a specific example now, but it would be like the zerg hive was my class, and I was a marine rushing to get there in time, even though I was already late.

I'm glad you brought up the "alien dream" aspect. One thing that bothered me about talking about dreams and games is that dreams are things our OWN subconscious mind creates. Even if a game has aspects similar to a dream, it's a symbolic organization that comes from outside and which we then have to relate. That seems like a crucial difference: our own minds can (and do) change the rules of the dream both during the process and in reflection. But with a game, we subject ourselves to the rules of another. That loss of spontaneity/autonomy/whatever seems important.

So I'd like to know more about how people reacted to those "alien dreams."

SnakeLinkSonic said...

Ha, I see what you mean now. An interconnected web on coincidences is definitely worth studying. While I'll probably have much more to give worthwhile feedback on concerning the archetypes, this has definitely given me a few things to think about.

You know, between all the bloggers in the community, we're covering a lot of ground very fast. I don't even have to think twice about writing oneirological blogs now, I can just link yours, heh.


L.B. Jeffries said...

@ Craig

Noted, the tricky thing is that Taylor's work is about using dreams for therapy. Although I do believe games are capable of therapy, the notion of experiencing an alien dream for entertainment purposes would be fairly novel. I suppose I'll go into both.


It's funny, when I started contributing to Popmatters writing intellectual stuff on games was a good way to get yourself flamed and booed. Oh how the times change.