Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Roger and Me

A couple weeks ago (to be precise, on 6/17), Roger Ebert tweeted the following: "Find me a person who would value any video game above 'Huckleberry Finn,' and I'll show you a fool." As you can imagine, gamers lit Twitter, his blog, and their own with a wildfire of responses (one of his blog postings had over 4000 comments!). And then finally, Ebert relented, admitting that he shouldn't really be commenting on video games when he has had little experience with them.

The discussion led me to thinking about my own experiences with Huck Finn and video games.

My first memory of Twain and Huckleberry Finn go back to Christmas 1965, when I was in third grade, and my family lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the town of Oroville. My grandmother and grandfather Lyons had given me a handsome edition of the book for Christmas, and my father read it to us, one of the only times I remember my dad reading a book to his four children. I especially recall my father almost rolling on the floor laughing when reading the chapter "Was Solomon Wise?"

Jump ahead a decade to my first year in college, a few years after my father's death, a year out of high school, when I had always planned on majoring and working in the sciences, probably some form of physical chemistry. What I found, though, in that first year at Diablo Valley College, was that I really didn't want to pursue science. The work just didn't interest me as it had when in high school, for some unfathomable reason. I even took a disliking to math while taking a trig class, something I had thoroughly enjoyed up to calculus in high school.

It wasn't until I took a class on Mark Twain the second semester, that I realized my interests were much more focused on literature than on science, that I was much more interested in reading about science than in doing it. I was more engaged in works of imagination than in works of the physical world.

Now jump forward another fifteen years. My oldest son at ten years old bought a Nintendo Gameboy with his paper-route money. A number of evenings after work selling real estate, or just starting my career in teaching in community colleges, I would sit on our couch surrounded by my four children as we all watched me maneuver Mario through the little screen images of Super Mario World, jumping, running, flying, knocking turtle shells, and so on. All of us were immersed, engaged in that little 2-3 inch screen, watching that little plumber negotiate the obstacles of a rather unfriendly world.

Now was that video game as rich an experience as reading Huckleberry Finn? In many ways, of course not. A simple game on a little screen does not compare to the rich world along the Mississippi River filled with round characters that Twain creates. Or of any of the rich narratives that my children and I experienced together as I read dozens of books aloud to them. But in both cases, father and children experienced a world of imagination together, laughed and held their breaths together, talked and enjoyed being with each other.

You see, I'm convinced that the use of imagination in placing oneself into an virtual world, or as Tolkien calls it a secondary world--being immersed, lost in, enveloped by that world--is the key to engagement in a number of media. One doesn't become engaged in page after page of words, tiny screens of choppy images, models floating through a star scape on a black and white TV--even the most sophisticated imagery available today on an HD TV or digital theater, whether in video games or film--without placing oneself imaginatively into the midst of that world, becoming immersed in it. One cannot be surrounded by a virtual world literally. One can only imagine being so.

Consequently, the idea that children playing video games are mindless vegetables compared to those who read I find wrongheaded. A child cannot become immersed in a video game without using his or her imagination any more than he or she can with a book.

And I think that's the key to success for MUVEs, MMOGs, virtual worlds--being able to believe, again as Tolkien says, while in the world, that what takes place is reasonable given the initial setup of that world. I rationally recognize that my avatar in Second Life, Profdan Netizen, is not me, it's a blob of pixels on a server. And I know that anyone I interact with in SL is one removed from their avatar, just as I am. But with my imagination, I secondarily believe, and am hence immersed in that secondary world while I'm there, and hence can experience it as I would a rich novel, a vivid video game, or a well crafted movie.

But I also see, as I contemplate my relationship with Huck Finn and video games, that social interaction is crucial to the experiences. My father reading to me, my mother buying me books, even when it wasn't a special holiday (I remember one afternoon coming home to find three paperbacks arranged carefully on my bed--the Lord of the Rings). Reading to my children and playing video games, from Gameboy to Nintendo in all of its variations to Playstation. Although reading and playing video games often are solitary affairs, just as often they were social events in my family. The communal nature of collectively exercising our imaginations and entering a secondary world together magnified the immersion--same is so with watching TV or going to a movie together.

Jump ahead another twenty years. I now find myself working with students in a virtual world. As I've mentioned in earlier entries, I've taught online for a dozen years in the 2D world of the Web and learning management systems like Blackboard and Angel. All along, I've found the lack of space in the online educational experience to be a serious deficiency. Why? Yes, I've been able to work on writing with students as a community through 2D apps. But I've found the experience to be detached, imaginatively shallow, no sense of place. A big part of it has to do with the likelihood that who we are, what we are, what we do are all mightily influenced by geography. As Annie Dillard mentions at the beginning of An American Childhood, "When everything else has gone from my brain--the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family--when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that." I've always thought that having an online world to work in, much like the worlds of a video game (hopefully more friendly than Super Mario World!), would enrich the experience, help students enjoy more fully the class, and give them an imaginative anchor--a topology of place--that would keep them in school more effectively than does 2D online learning.

Social interaction and imagination--both bring us back to virtual worlds. Both are essential to the richness of Second Life and other MUVEs and MMOGs.

Some students get imaginative/social interaction right off with Second Life, many don't. Part of it, I think, is the newness of the medium, much as many students didn't get working with a community of writers online twelve years ago. But I'm wondering what I might do to help students recognize the MUVE as a place of the imagination that will build community and exercise mental skills which improve their writing.

Face it, without a well developed imagination, one cannot write effectively.