Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Extremes of Human Systems

My latest PopMatters article is now life: The Extremes of Human Systems

This post idea initially came from pondering on books that I think would make compelling game experiences. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about how most any media or cultural artifact could relate to video games. When I thought about books, I kept coming back to non-fiction and Into Thin Air in particular.

When I first read Into Thin Air, I could not stop thinking about it. Krakaur's narrative slips so fluidly between normalcy and incomprehensible reality on the summit of Everest, but it also takes its time. You know the fate that will befall the team, so each mistake, each piece of every system that leads to that deadly night, feels foreboding and ominous. Yet even with all the pieces laid out, it is not so easy to put everything into a sensible package.

See, most complex systems, while understandable in parts, are so intertwined and reliant on disparate pieces that getting sense of the whole is nigh impossible. Sure, we can imagine how a system works from a high level of analysis. The quantifiable metrics of trash collection, for example, can give us a glimmer into the workings of a major city. But these metrics can shed very little light on the inner workings of a family system, itself no less intertwined with the systems around it.

Situations of extreme survival provide easy opportunities into the human condition precisely because in these scenarios, systems start to break down and you can see inside, as though cracking open some alien creature's rib cage. Underneath large systems, we find smaller ones that, in times of great stress, mean absolutely everything. We have insane survival scenarios in games all the time, but very rarely do these scenarios hide anything but trivialities.

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