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<  Design concepts  ~  Catharsis?

Michael
Posted: Mon Aug 14, 2006 11:37 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Reading Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun", I find myself thinking about Catharsis. The extreme (emotional and physical) violence in the ancient Greek tragedies was justified by Aristotle's introduction of the concept of catharsis. Suddenly, the violence and sadness were not these decadent features that undermined the soul and lead to nothing but crime and war. No, thanks to catharsis, the audience was able to experience these things in a fiction, and learn important lessons, without having to have committed a murder or broken a lover's heart.

My first question is whether this catharsis-theory applies to games, in particular the many games that simulate physical violence (in terms of deep emotions, games are still somewhat primitive).

I wonder. I am personally not very attracted to this physical violence stuff but I do enjoy an emotionally devastating theater piece, book or musical composition. Or even some aspects of horror movies (not the violence or the terror, but the pain). The thing is, I truly enjoy them. It's a deep joy to be able to cry when hearing a beautiful sad song. I don't think it's cathartic. In fact, it's extremely dangerous even. I have to be careful not to follow the path of sad music too far, or I will have a lot of trouble getting back out of the melancholia it would throw me in.

This may be a personal thing. But I have a feeling that either Aristotle overestimated the capacities of his fellow men. Or contemporary people are not as strong and elevated as the ancient Greeks. This is quite possible giving the current state of the world.

I don't believe violent games bring catharsis to their players. But I am not one of them. So if any of you have any experience with this, please share.
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whuber
Posted: Sun Aug 20, 2006 3:50 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 20 Aug 2006 Posts: 1
Hello,

I'm a new member and, so far, a non-player of Endless Forest. But I'm (academically) interested in some of the problems you pose, and will be playing the game to explore them.

I suggest that a distinction be made between representational violence and the intense emotions that occur in many, but not all videogames, because I suspect that your query conflates the two somewhat.

If you have ever played a first-person shooter, you may have experienced that the strongest emotions do not occur from the representation of violence as such, but from the realtime tensions that occur in a struggle against an opponent - the fear of possible defeat, of ambush, of being outwitted: the challenge of anticipating strategems, the excitement of an opportunity to win, the devestation of defeat.

These emotions may well have evolutionary origins in violent conflict, in the struggle to avoid predators, capture prey, to best suitors, to protect family and territory. Nonetheless, as emotions they are somewhat autonomous of their origins, and can be evoked in a game of football.

Representational violence is another question. Chess, representationally, is war: pieces capture/kill each other, gain advantageous position, with the end result of cornering the general of an opposing army. Go is, in terms of the real-world situation it represents, also war. However, the emotions are not those I described for a first-person shooter. They are experienced as spatio-mathematical problems - there is an element of competition, but the mood is general cooler (though it can still be quite intense.) I would argue, however, that it is not cathartic in the same way that a first-person shooter is.

I suspect that the temporal and cognitive mechanics of a game are more important that its representational mechanics; however, I might also predict that there will be a sense of implicit "violence" in any game that calls upon those emotions of suspense and mastery in a real-time way, whether or not there is a depiction of violence, that the geneology of those emotions themselves may be associated with violence.
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Michael
Posted: Sun Aug 20, 2006 8:06 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Which one of the two violences do you see in drama? Representational or visceral (if I can summarize it like that)?
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Mooncalf
Posted: Sun Feb 25, 2007 1:35 am Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Feb 2007 Posts: 18 Location: New Zealand
A polish psychologist (Andrzej Lobaczewski) whose book i've been reading talks about catharsis in terms of a "positive personality disintegration." The positive aspect being as Aristotle expressed, the opportunity to experience and learn without risk.

I believe there -is- a risk however, that if someone fails to be objective about those experiences, then they don't learn anything, they either accept or reject the experience however their preconception dictates.

Aristotle certainly must have had objectivity, did those around him have it, too? Michael raises an interesting point, I do prefer to believe that the Greek society in general was indeed more enlightened than societies that came after.

Does Catharsis theory apply to games? I think yes and no, at this stage probably more often no...

Perhaps Michael can testify to this, that Catharsis occurs when a designer creates a game (so they could be forgiven for believing their games to have an element of catharsis in any case.)

For players to experience Catharsis in a videogame, though, wouldn't they need to provide for themselves the membrane of objectivity, the stage/audience seperation which the interactivity of the videogame artform tends to refute, and the "presence" of music tends to transcend?

I think a player must be prepared to analyse the game and their own reactions to it. I feel it's a question of the scope of the game, and the personality of the player...

Can the player be immersed and retain their objectivity? Is the proxy function of an avatar the means by which we comfortably examine "Bob The Dragonslayer's" (our own) behaviour?

Yeesh, I can't help but type long posts x.x;
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Michael
Posted: Sun Feb 25, 2007 3:33 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Maybe this whole catharsis idea is rubbish in the first place. Maybe humans are simply fascinated with violence and power and they enjoy fantasizing about them for no other reason?

I do think cultural and social climate have a lot of influence on this, though. Just the other day I realized that, contrary to older stories, most mainstream movies have happy endings. Older versions of fairy tales often have a bad ending (in Perrault's version of Little Red Ridinghood, the story ends when the wolf has eaten the girl -there is no hunter to save her). The purpose of this was the moral lesson. Now all stories have good endings. Perhaps we're not interested in moral lessons anymore? Or morality as such? (this would seem compatible with the arrogant and self-indulgent state of contemporary Western society)
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Mooncalf
Posted: Mon Feb 26, 2007 12:00 am Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Feb 2007 Posts: 18 Location: New Zealand
Oh I think Catharsis exists, but there's a difference between fearing something and facing that fear. Catharsis I think is when we gain control over ourselves through a better understanding of ourselves, in videogames control is often assumed on the part of the player and a given in terms of mechanics. The call for non-linearity may well be a call for a lack of control as much as a call for more choice.

Childhood and early development edu-tainment (Fairy tales and tv shows and kids movies etc) is something I had to write to my local paper about recently, a columnist was upset that Hannibal Lechter had become popular, that a sociopath in his view had somehow replaced the "man of honour." I feel that people know Hannibal Lechter is deranged, but perhaps rightly have a deep respect for his super-human self-control.

I was obliged to point out that we happily sugar-coat the reality of our offspring to absurd degrees. We become irrational about protecting them from pretty much anything with a basis in natural reality. Then when these children -biologically- gain or become aware of a critical faculty (whether the parents like it or not) as young adults, it is little wonder that they undergo a crisis of bizarre culture shock, rejecting the oversimplifications they've been fed and becomming pioneer explorers of their own dark fantasies, which many parents will not assist or actively and arbitrarily discourage, further impairing their ability to reintegrate into well-balanced adults.

Oh, and I have a book of old Portuguese fairy tales, they're extremely racist. Just as a quirky aside, not all old fairy tales were moral pinnacles, I think our contemporaries can do better.
Smile
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Michael
Posted: Mon Feb 26, 2007 3:37 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Mooncalf wrote:
Oh, and I have a book of old Portuguese fairy tales, they're extremely racist. Just as a quirky aside, not all old fairy tales were moral pinnacles, I think our contemporaries can do better.
Smile

But morality changes over time!
The Grimm version of Little Red Ridinghood could be considered sexist by people today compared to the older versions since the female protagonist requires the help of a man to rescue her in the later version. Even Perrault's version which warns young ladies against older men with bad intentions does not preach the same moral as the older French version where the girl can escape with the help of other women. I guess a lot depends on who's telling the story...

I'm still not sure if modern people's fascination with violence leads to catharsis. We seem to enjoy it too much. Perhaps because our societies are much safer than they used to be. We rarely experience real violence so we get curious. Catharsis can only happen when it relates to something that exists in real life.
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Mooncalf
Posted: Mon Feb 26, 2007 11:57 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 19 Feb 2007 Posts: 18 Location: New Zealand
Quote:
"Perhaps we're not interested in moral lessons anymore? Or morality as such?"


So perhaps we never were... I suppose they don't need to be moral lessons, just lessons?

Quote:
"Catharsis can only happen when it relates to something that exists in real life. "


So it is the verisimilitude of the experience that allows us to 'take it personally?'

Which begs the question, if we cannot achieve catharsis from something that is too unreal, then what can we gain? A subjective emotional connection that has little practical value?

I think Catharsis is when we analyse something we recognise as being contrary or hostile to our own perspective. When I recognise something, a game a stage production etc as having violent or (to me) aberrant behaviours, then my catharsis must be in determining precisely why, and consolidating my position which may first have to change.

It has to be objective, because if I say "It is violent because the people who created it are the DEVIL." then I haven't felt truly challenged, or challenged myself, i've taken what I already 'knew' and thrown up a wall, no catharsis, just strength of raw conviction. (I apologise for this shameless jab at certain fundamentalists, use any bigoted example you like? Smile)

Basically I think that only the most appropriately crafted of artistic experiences will be able to evoke catharsis in an audience without the audience being already objectively inclined towards disintegrative-reintegrative states. This definition does not preclude videogames, but I do think they have a much harder time of it, being relatively new and underdeveloped.

I expect that as we experience more of these situations, we become more conducive to them, and less inductive.

My Catharsis in A Violent Videogame:

The Elder Scrolls Morrowind

I only ever had one genuinely enduring character in this game, and it was similar for other - though not all - people I spoke to on the TES Forums.

My experience was a case of a murder that I was enlisted to investigate, I knew when I began that I would be required to assassinate (in an ironically official capacity) the person/s responsible for the murder.

I killed the wrong person.

In retrospect the game's dialogue was not ambiguous. In questioning, the innocent person was belligerant, while the guilty party was calm and helpful, and it was the latter that would patiently and repeatedly point to the former. I was fooled.

That mistake was a genuine catharsis for me, it defined much of my character's (cautious and patient) behaviour thereafter, and I surely took some of that away from that game with me.
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rinku
Posted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 5:01 am Reply with quote
Joined: 14 Sep 2005 Posts: 128 Location: Paterson, NJ
One point -- I don't think that just because what people believe to be moral changes that morality itself changes. I view morality as "skill at life", with certain techniques and practices which generally work.

For instance, it's usually moral to be honest, because not being honest causes people to dislike you, causes you to have to work hard to maintain a lie, causes people to act on false information which doesn't work as well as if they had acted on truthful information, and so on. It's not the case that 100% of the time lying is bad (Nazis at your door demanding Jews in your basement for example), just the vast majority of the time.

Because morality is a skill, like baking or fishing, it wouldn't change too much through time, although it'd change occasionally, for instance morality in a natural disaster or a concentration camp is different from morality in times of quiet and peace.

But to get back on topic, I don't believe in catharsis, it's one of the few points I disagree with Aristotle on. I don't believe there's such a thing psychologically as catharsis; it's true that doing something expends energy and tires you out, like exercise, but performing any action makes you more likely to repeat that action, so I worry about things like GTA and such. I don't believe it directly would increase violence, but I also don't believe it's healthy for a person to play a game in which they walk down the street and kill random innocents for fun, I don't think it does them much good to do that.
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