Thursday, March 04, 2010

Bat Out of Hello

Stefano Gualeni gave a talk in this year's seminar series for the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds at UC Irvine, which may have contained more philosophical content than would-be game designers in the audience may have expected. In the European context, such a talk would probably seem like much less of an anomaly, given the presence of theorists like Miguel Sicart or conferences like the Philosophy of Computer Games.

Known for creating the Tony Tough games and a popular basketball simulator, and for lending a hand to the anarchic Fairytale Fights, Gualeni explained that he had trained as an architect and therefore wanted to start his talk with Rafael's famed fresco of the School of Athens to introduce his overview of metaphysics, which quickly made its way to Martin Heidegger's criticism of the "fundamental mistake" of assuming a separation between the real world of objects and the mental world of subjects, so central to Western thought and a major concern of René Descartes' substantial dualism that opposed the thinking think and the extended thing.

Then Gualeni jumped off from Plato's "myth of the cave" to an elaborate diagram that went from the base in the "Real" where subjectivity functions to make sense of the world through real experience and interaction to the real of metaphysics, which must mediate with abstract representations, such as charts, taxonomies, or phylogenetic trees. Atop of this structure he sketched out "Mediaphysics" as the realm of the imagination, which provided some answer to Hume's assertion that human beings are confined within the sensory apparatus. For Gualeni it is impossible to wax philosophical without mentioning Marshall MacLuhan who argued that first the man made the hammer then the hammer made the man. He also used Borges' famous story about "The Library of Babel" to argue that computational media are fundamentally different from books.

Which brings him to his central question: "What is it like to be a bat?" It is also the question asked in 1974 by the realist philosopher Thomas Nagel, and one difficult to answer because we are bound to human subjectivity and one recently re-asked by Katherine Hayles in her plenary talk at DAC 2009 as being critical to so-called "object-oriented ontology." The question serves as the subject for Guileni's game Haerfest. He reframes the question in the context of the game as "not what is it like for me to be a bat but rather what is it like for a bat to be a bat."

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