Benevolent Dissociation

The February 23, 2009 issue of the New Yorker is really fabulous—stuffed with lots of powerful articles about a range of interesting subjects—but I wanted to call out a quote from one of the stories, the profile of writer Ian McEwan. It's actually a quote from his book Sunday, which I haven't yet read:

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

The character in question is a brain surgeon, and the quote is talking about how he feels while he's in the operating room, but the article uses it to describe how McEwan feels while writing, and really, I think it's simply an eloquent description of the Csíkszentmihályi flow state that can come with any sufficiently tuned interactive experience, including game programming and game playing.

We often ask what kinds of meaning and emotions games can conjure in players, and I'm still not sure what the answer is. There has been lots of discussion about what Frank Lantz and Jonathan Blow call the traditional "message model of meaning", where the game delivers gift wrapped packets of meaning to the player, as opposed to meaning emerging from the interactivity. The McEwan quote above is interesting in this context because it actually goes as far as to dis the Big Three passive art forms in contrast with the flow experience, in a literary novel, no less!

I think answering the "How do games mean?" question is the most important challenge of game design in the next ten or twenty years. How do you take this "benevolent dissociation", the "clarified emptiness", and the "deep, muted joy" and turn the experience into art (and entertainment) that can be held up next to film, literature, music, and painting in terms of conveying emotions and meaning to people, of speaking to the human condition? Some would argue we're already there, and society just needs to catch up, others argue it will never happen. I tend to believe both of these are wrong, and that we can get there, we just have a lot of work to do first.

This page was last edited on 27 February 2009, at 06:15.