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February 2011

Black Orpheus

Continuing to watch Criterion Collection films on, last night I watched Black Orpheus.  It is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Rio during Carvinale. 

It is a beautiful movie.  Visually stunning.  Colorful.  Musical.  The dancing kept making me smile and shake my own hips (despite lying in bed with the laptop in my lap).  It almost made me put the computer down and tell Michael to get ready to go out dancing.

The myth is well adapted to the context.  Death is a frightening character.  The climax, which you can see coming for quite some time, still shocked and horrified -- I actually clutched my face in shock.

4 film reels
5 popcorn kernels

Don Giovanni

Michael and I attended a dress rehearsal of Opera Omaha's current Don Giovanni on Wednesday night.  It was our first Don Giovanni.  I don't want to review the performance itself ahead of friends seeing it this weekend.  But I do have thoughts on the opera.

I was fascinated by the layers of meaning and how dark it really is (which I don't think comes out fully in this performance).  It has a pre-Byronic, pre-Nietzschean critique of conventional morality and Christendom which at least heads in the direction of moral nihilism.  I'd recommend Bertrand Russell's chapter on the Romantics in his History of Philosophy for some of the geneaology of ideas I'm using here; I don't think he comments on Mozart there at all.
Giovanni is dragged to hell by a statue of an old man -- not some vital, living, moral force.  Given that Europe was about to cast off the old, hardened morality, to cease to believe in it,  the Opera seems to convey that truly there is no one to hold someone like Giovanni accountable -- the community of others in the opera surely can't, most of them are equally repulsive or simply pathetic.  In the Europe that is coming someone like Giovanni will be able to do whatever they want and get away with it.  And that's exactly what happened.

Heightened scrutiny

The key paragraph in Eric Holder's decision yesterday not to defend DOMA.  I'm assuming that "heigtened scrutiny" is now the position of the executive branch?

Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated.   In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.   The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional.   Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.   I fully concur with the President's determination.

Reality is Broken: Alternate Realities

Chapter seven has been my favourite so far.  Games are often more engaging than reality, but she writes, "the less we fully participate in our everyday lives, the fewer opportunities we have to be happy."  Good to hear.  "The emotional and social rewards we really crave require active, enthusiastic, self-motivated participation."

In this chapter, the first in Part Two: Reinventing Reality, the "antiescpatist" games, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).  These games you play to get more out of your real life. 

One type are life-management games, like Chore Wars, that help you to manage your real life.  Chore Wars is a game you play with your family or roommates.  The actual tasks are real household chores, with the points awarded as part of the on-line game.

In the category of organizational ARGs, she discusses a new charter school, Quest to Learn, which has set up the school itself to be a game.  Rather than schools using games as pedagogical devices, the school itself is a game.  I found this section very interesting, with powerful implications for education.  I made a copy of this section and gave to our Christian Ed director to share with the Education Ministry.

The rationale for Quest to Learn is that "born-digital kids" are doing worse in school because traditional pedagogy doesn't work anymore because "they take high-intensity engagement and active participation for granted.  They know what extreme, positive activation feels like, and when they're not feeling it, they're bored and frustrated."

She quotes Marc Pensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives, "All the students we teach have something in their lives that's really engaging -- something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. . . .  By comparison, school is so boring that kids, used to this other life, can't stand it. . . . they know what real engagement feels like.  They know exactly what they're missing."

I simply can't in this blogpost describe Quest to Learn as fully as she does in this chapter.  But their website is a great place to learn more.  McGonigal describes the day of a typical student, and part of what was so interesting to me, was how learning was very much about gaining skills and developing teams in order to succeed at quests.  I highly encourage you to read, at least, this portion of the book.

I also really liked the final section, which described a concept ARG designed by McGonigal herself called SuperBetter.  It has implications for our pastoral and congregational care. In fact, we are already playing an ARG!

McGonigal designed the game when she was trying to recover from a concussion.  She designed a set of missions with the purpose of giving herself a series of small projects to fulfill so that she had measurable progress (and leveling up).  By doing this, even the small steps of success, made her feel more powerful against her illness.  It also included recruiting a team of allies with specific roles to play.  Here are the five missions the game starts with:

1)  Create your identity
2)  Recruit your allies.  She writes that when she recruited these allies, she felt they finally got what she had been trying to tell them about her illness before the game.
3)  Find the bad guys -- identify all the things that make you feel worse
4)  Identify your power-ups -- all the things that make you feel better.  Now you'll try to collect as many of these as you can every day.
5)  Make a list of goals, including daily goals.  Involve your allies in creating these and fulfilling them.

I can imagine using this as a method is pastoral care, designing steps like this for various people.

Now, lest you think that this could add further levels of guilt and shame to someone trying to recover or someone who will not recover from their illness, she writes, "You play in order to discover how well you can do--not because you're guaranteed to win.  SuperBetter has to acknowledge the possibility of failure to achieve complete recovery.  But it can also make it less scary to fail--because there is an abundance of other goals to pursue and othe rewarding activities to undertake along the way."  So, there is a potential problem here, but I also think potential for great good if developed properly. 

Maybe the best result of SuperBetter is that invited the sufferer to think outside the box in a new and alternative way.

The chapter concludes with idea that "Game design is a structure."  We can use it, then, to answer questions like "What habits should we be encouraging? What actions should we be multiplying?"

Surely, this is unconstitutional

We've known for some time that the anti-freedom movement had decided that since it could not persuade people to choose not to have abortions, and since it could not eliminate the constitutionally recognized human right to control our own bodies and medical procedures, that they would do as much as they could to both 1) make it de facto impossible to perform abortions and 2) intimidate women and physicians. 

In that now decade and one-half effort, Virginia has passed a bill that will likely, de facto, eliminate abortions in the state of Virginia.  In many states this medical procedure and human right already face such onerous governmental regulations that there are very few providers, which has become quite a burden for rural and poor women.

Surely, laws that de facto, rather than de jure, ban a human right, are unconstitutional.  This was the case with Jim Crow laws.  States in the South didn't have laws banning African-Americans from voting, but they had laws that made it next to impossible for them to vote and intimidate those who attempted to exercise their rights. 

A Budget is a Moral Document

Jim Wallis writes about the current budget-cutting mania in state houses and the U. S. Congress and how these are moral decisions, not just fiscal policy:

If a budget is a moral document, these budget-cutters show that their priorities are to protect the richest Americans and abandon the poorest -- and this is an ideological and moral choice. The proposed House cuts, which were just sent to the Senate, are full of disproportionate cuts to initiatives that have proven to save children's lives and overcome poverty, while leaving untouched the most corrupt and wasteful spending of all American tax dollars -- the Pentagon entitlement program. This is not fiscal integrity; this is hypocrisy.

U.S. military spending is now 56 percent of the world's military expenditures and is more than the military budgets of the next 20 countries in the world combined. To believe all that money is necessary for genuine American security is simply no longer credible. To say it is more important than bed nets that prevent malaria, vaccines that prevent deadly diseases, or child health and family nutrition for low-income families is simply immoral. Again, these are ideological choices, not smart fiscal ones. To prioritize endless military spending over critical, life-saving programs for the poor is to reverse the biblical instruction to beat our swords into plowshares. The proposed budget cuts would beat plowshares into more swords. These priorities are not only immoral, they are unbiblical.

Outrageous bill introduced in Nebraska

Just when abortion rights supporters thought they had beaten a controversial bill they believe would legalize the killing of abortion providers, it has cropped up again—this time in a more expansive form that has drawn the concern of law enforcement officials.

Last week, South Dakota's legislature shelved a bill, introduced by Republican state Rep. Phil Jensen, which would have allowed the use of the "justifiable homicide" defense for killings intended to prevent harm to a fetus. Now a nearly identical bill is being considered in neighboring Nebraska, where on Wednesday the state legislature held a hearing on the measure. . . . [Read more]

Reality is Broken: Epic Meaning

With the sixth chapter, we conclude Part One: Why Games Make Us Happy.  This last chapter in the section is about epic meaning, "Becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves."  McGonigal focuses on Halo to elucidate the concepts in this chapter.

In this chapter she admits that there are connections to longstanding issues of spirituality, philosophy, and aethetics.  In a way, nothing new is discovered in video games, there is just greater access to the types of epics that bring us meaning.

I liked this quote of Martin Seligman's that she references, "The self is a very poor site for meaning."

I didn't much like the wording of Fix #6 "Compared with games, reality is trivial.  Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions."  I think reality is quite meaningful; there are all sorts of epic tasks that require our effort and courage, but we seem to be distracted to settle for too little.  On the other hand, I do understand, see my second blogpost from back in 2004, "The Mythos of a Gen-X Male."

Games like Halo are "epic in three key ways":

They create epic contexts for action: collective stories that help us connect our individual gameplay to a much bigger mission.

The immerse us in epic environments: vast, interactive spaces that provoke feelings of curiosity and wonder.

And they engage us in epic projects: cooperative efforts carried out by players on massive scales, over months or even years.

Now, all those sound like features of Christianity to me.  How to emphasize them? 

Discussing the epic context for action, she mentions something which can reveal a dark side to video game play.  These games fulfill "gamers' power fantasies" with the "aesthetic pleasures of destruction and the positive feelings we get from exerting control over a situation."  That made me nervous.  But she goes on to right that though that may be (and have been) the case, newer, bigger games are revealing a different sort of power, "the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture."  But I'm still disturbed, because the big achievement in Halo that is the focus of this chapter, is collectively reaching the number of 10 billion kills.  There are proto-Fascist dangers in all this, I feel.

In the very next paragraph after that last quote, she quotes, "Story sets the stage for meaning."  Exactly, I think.  The content of virtue ethics is the narrative of the community.  So much, then, hinges on what story we find identity and meaning in.  See Alasdair McIntyre.

In the section on creating epic environments, I was intrigued by her discussion of neolithic cathedrals and how humanity has always worked to create spaces that are both humbling and empowering in their scale.  She says that recent research is positing that these epic buildings pre-date complex societies and may have inspired them, rather than the traditional view that humanity first developed settled and complex farming communities and then began to construct major buildings.  She wonders, then, if the epic environments of the gaming world might inspire human development?

In discussing the soundscapes of the games, she quotes the audio director of Halo, "The music should give a feeling of importance, weight, and a sense of the 'ancient.'"  She writes, "The score includes Gregorian chanting, a string orchestra, percussion, and Qawwali vocals, a Sufi devotional style of music intended to produce an ecstatic state in the listener."  These discussions of space and sound are interesting to me from a worship arts perspective, and I will likely share them with our Worship Ministry as we discuss our next topic -- the psychology of worship.

One feature of the epic projects, is the collection of knowledge to help one another.  She writes about Halowiki where there are incredible amounts of tips, advice, and reflection.  It made me curious if we could develop on-line sharing of church members of simple "how to-s" in living the Christian life?  Of course, we do do that in real life conversations and interactions in classes, groups, informal fellowship, etc.

One problem with post-1980 generations, she writes, is that our culture focused too much on self-esteem.  The result is more depression and anxiety.  She writes, "We want to be esteemed in the eyes of others, not for 'who we are,' but rather for what we've done that really matters."  This resonates with the class I taught last fall on The Curse of the Self

And I'll let her speak for herself on some concluding points to this chapter and Part One:

Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. . . .  It's high time we start applying the lessons of games to the design of our everyday lives.  We need to engineer alternate realities: new, more gameful ways of interacting with the real world and living our real lives.