Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Let's Go Back to College: Some background and a discussion of Community S2 Ep14 - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

I'd like to make it clear that it's not all doom and gloom here, and that I will be looking at approaches to mental illness that I think can be both valid and constructive at some point or another. In fact, part of what might best be termed the thesis of the book I am writing and which this blog is supporting is that there are certain overlaps in the way that we talk about madness and the way that we talk about gaming and that this adds an extra layer of interest and meaning to the way in which games approach and model mental illness.

It's just that gaming is also a part of the popular media, and popular media on a whole is really very bad at representing mental illness either accurately or compassionately. This shouldn't be surprising, as popular media is really not very good at depicting a whole lot of things (gender, race, emotional development, learning new skills, how people actually talk to one another). This is because, rather than build a new language of representation from the ground up, in the majority of cases an instance of media will be more or less reliant on the language of representation as extant. Even where it is more thoughtful, pasting in standard signifiers, or tropes, as a shorthand in less 'important' representations allows a piece of work to concentrate fully on the themes it would like to explore.

This is why procedural detective stories often make extensive use of 'mad' killers. Not having to spend time delineating a motive gives the story more space to explore the mechanics of investigation. They are able to do this because previous instances of popular media have already established the idea that psychosis is a sufficient predictor for violence and it is expected that the media consumer will be aware of this, having seen previous examples that have spelled the link out. Of course, this process blunts any nuance that might (although it may well not) have been in those previous depictions and perpetuates to further depictions the even flatter shorthand that all psychotic individuals are violent. This is a fairly basic form of memetic propagation of stereotype and you should be able to see something similar in any number of damaging and stifling or just plain limiting depictions of any group that can in any way be conceived of as a group.

While a lot of media is content to unquestioningly reabsorb the same assumptions in the name of expedience there are, I think, three main ways in which this sort of representational smoothing can be resisted. The first is to start from scratch, building a new representational language through rigorous direct observation filtered through a specific aesthetic , but this is unlikely to be popular at least at first because you will be asking your audience to do almost as much work as you are.

The second, and most common, is for creators to work generally within the current language, but to challenge those shortcuts and givens which they see as particularly untrue. Crucially, this means that a given work may well contain plenty of tropes either seemingly or actually unquestioningly as a way of expediting the storytelling around the sections of greater reflection. I am a massive fan of the show Elementary, for example, and one of the things I love about it is that it explores male/female friendships in a properly nuanced way without resorting to standard romanticising or sexual tension tropes. However, in order to have the space to do this and also present a compelling mystery every week it has more than once fallen back on the trope of madness proxying as a sort of un-parseable evil and although I'm not happy about that I can live with it.

That these new approaches to old representations may themselves fall back into the general language of popular culture is just an indication of how popular culture works and explains the curious dissonance we get from watching shows we ourselves may have had no problems with at the point at which they first aired but twenty years down the line feel just horribly offensive. It's not that, in the majority of cases, our essential decency as human beings has changed (although some of us may have done work to understand our own internal biasis as a personal exercise) but that the language of representation has changed around us (hopefully progressively, and hopefully, yes, changing our opinions about previously marginalised groups in the process).

And finally, the third approach is not so much an attempt to rewrite the language of representation, but rather to point out its failings from within by subverting and remixing it. This is where Community comes in, as it is an exemplar of this approach. Almost everything Community says or does is a reference or a trope; every character is, or at least began as, a bundle of stereotypes and yet through this they are given a freedom of expression and depth that comes from a relentless expression of '...yes, and they are also people.' It's a fine line, one that is only really possible within the magic realist confines of a very genre-savvy sitcom, and one that as the show's fourth season shows it is also very easy to over-step. However, when it works it is glorious because it is able to make you question the received language of representation whilst simultaneously utilising it to create incredibly densely packed stories that are still easy enough to follow.

Community touches upon the separation of the game world (i.e. the universe and all its rules and connections that is encompassed by and exists only for the duration of a game as it is played) from the real world in a number of episodes. It has a major arc exploring the the overlap between fantasy and reality, which although not necessarily restricted to gaming as such is heavily invested in the concept of play. It has had to date not one but three paintball episodes and, while the paintball episode of any given show will by virtue of its very structure examine the limit and transition between the real and the game world, Community's do so consistently, repeatedly and enthusiastically.

I won't say any more for now on the ideological cross-pollination between (concepts of) degraded or distorted ideas of reality in game-playing and mental dysfunction as I am if not writing a whole book then at least writing whole chapters on this sort of thing. But I will recommend one episode of Community that, if you are reading this blog, you will almost certainly get. The episode is Season 2, Episode 14 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and it is great. It gets both gaming and mental distress (in this case the sadness and loneliness that both stem from and feed into depression) right and examines the way in which the former can be a part of the way in which one mediates the latter.

Interestingly for Community, which usually takes us fully into the fantasy world (see the stop motion and video game episodes in particular), this episode is rigorously set in reality. This enables it to say that what is really transformative about playing roleplaying games is that you are simultaneously sitting about with your mates and yet also inhabiting a different world with them - a transgressive space where you can do and say and explore things and thoughts and emotions ordinarily unavailable to you. It concludes that the best games (of D&D) are the ones that let us test the limits of of quite who we are and how we feel within the relative protective skin of the game-world, not just the ones where we kill the most monsters. It is also a rather lovely ode to the joy of social gaming and is chock-full of in-jokes for role-players of a certain ilk.

So yeah: you should watch Community anyway, but watch that episode even if you don't and you will hopefully get a bit of an understanding of some of the ideas I will be talking about as this blog goes on.

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