Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Careful, He's Educated or, Thoughts Prompted By a Computer Game

I played a lot of computer games as a kid, but the ones that I've kept playing are the Myst games. Commonly known as a game for non-gamers, Myst is brilliantly minimallistic. No cumbersome inventory management, no labored backstory, no complicated interface. Most importantly, Myst has a good story. I adored it as a young teenager, when it occupied my mind from morning till night for more than a month. Its sequel, Riven, was the Empire Strikes Back to Myst's Star Wars--a wider world full of tougher puzzles with a more interesting story that ended in several intriguing ways, not all of them complete losses or wins. The series has persisted to the present day, with two sequels (Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation) and a related game originally intended as a multi-player environment (Uru). A fifth and final installment is scheduled for release this fall.

All Myst games revolve around Atrus, one of the few survivors of a highly advanced civilization called the D'ni, whose greatest achievement, The Art, allowed them to write books through which they could travel to different worlds. In Myst, we discover that Atrus' greedy and power-hungry sons, Sirrus and Achenar, have lured him into a trap so that they could ravage his library and the worlds it linked to, eventually becoming trapped in two prison books of Atrus' devising. In Riven, the player follows Atrus' kidnapped wife Katherine to her home and matches wits against Ghen, Atrus' megalomaniacal father, who wants Atrus to repair the damage he's caused through his inept mishandling of The Art. In Exile, a former victim of Sirrus and Achenar (Brad Dourif, making ends meet before Peter Jackson and the producers of Deadwood started handing him fat and well-deserved paychecks) tries to take his revenge on Atrus by stealing his only link to the new D'ni homeworld. Revelation, which takes place a decade later, sends the player to Sirrus and Achenar's prison worlds to discover which one of them is responsible for the kidnapping of Atrus' young daughter, Yeesha.

The first two Myst games (and the three tie-in novels that tell Atrus' backstory) emphasized the fact that the good guys were highly educated, inquisitive, and scientifically minded. The bad guys were lazy, uneducated, unable or unwilling to acknowledge their intellectual inferiority and constantly looking for shortcuts on the way to knowledge and power. If that wasn't enough, the metaphor of books that allow you to influence the physical world and travel to distant places is a clear indicator of a pro-intellectualism mindset.

Things start to change in the third game, Exile, in which we get a glimpse of the process of educating someone like Atrus when we follow the villain to his prison of two decades, a lesson world written by Atrus for his sons as they began to learn The Art. These lessons, however, are nothing more than insipid New Age mantras such as "energy powers future motion".

Things get worse in Revelation. Atrus summons the player to offer an unbiased opinion on whether Sirrus and Achenar have reformed enough to be allowed out of their prisons. While exploring these prison worlds, the player gets a glimpse of how the brothers have spent their incarcerations through flashbacks and journal entries. Sirrus, the "smart" brother, immediately sets out trying to find a way out. Using only crude tools, he somehow manages to MacGyver everything from circuit boards to airships. When Atrus inserts an impervious meeting chamber into the prison world, through which he and Katherine can talk to Sirrus without allowing him to escape, their unrepentant son immediately begins trying to find a way to shatter it, going so far as to manipulate his young sister and tug on his mother's heartstrings to do so.

Achenar, on the other hand, is depicted as a lumbering, grunting he-man (the brothers' personalities in Revelation are a gigantic retcon from the original Myst, in which Sirrus was a greedy, effete abuser of alcohol and narcotics with zero understanding of technical matters, and Achenar was a giggling psychopath with dark and grotesque appetites) who uses his incarceration in a jungle world teeming with wildlife as an opportunity to hunt big game. Though not unskilled with his hands, Achenar is clearly Sirrus' intellectual inferior, as his crude handwriting and poor spelling reveal when the player reads his journals. These journals also reveal a slow but definite change in Achenar's personality. He begins to be horrified with his and Sirrus' crimes, and with his own depletion of the jungle's wildlife population. He becomes a conservationist, spending hours observing and studying the indigenous monkey population. When his mother makes him a gift of a home-made garment, the simple giant is moved to tears by its beauty and softness.

Revelation's final act takes place on the world to which Yeesha has been kidnapped, a New Age wonderland ruled by of a group of priestesses who travel to "Dream" to meet the spirits of their ancestors. There the player discovers that the still-evil Sirrus is Yeesha's kidnapper, and that he plans to take over her body in order to learn The Art from Atrus, whom he intends to kill once he's learned all he needs. Through the self-sacrifice of Achenar and, of course, the help of The Ancestors, Yeesha is saved.

The transformation is complete. From a series that extolled the values of education and erudition, Myst has turned the intellectual into a boogeyman. The only permissible kind of intelligence is the ethereal, illogical, fortune cookie "wisdom" of the spirit world. To paraphrase Achenar as he describes his quarry in the jungle world, stupidity has become a virtue.

Anyone watching popular culture depictions of academics knows that the stereotypical egghead is and always has been cowardly, weak, and effeminate (unless they are female, of course, in which case they usually aren't womanly enough). The stereotype doesn't exist without reason--if only because the kind of mindset required to do something very brave probably doesn't benefit from too much introspection or imagination--but recently it has evolved to include moral deficiency. Most worryingly, a lot of these new depictions of the academic as heartless and amoral come from science fiction--supposedly the stronghold of geeks and rationalists.
  • When Farscape's John Crichton is duplicated by an alien device, one of his copies is farther along the evolutionary scale (naturally, this copy is pale, bald and less well-hung). The more advanced Crichton is smarter than the regular one and, as the audience soon discovers, is coldly amoral. He manipulates Crichton and the rest of Moya's crew in order to preserve his own life, whereas Crichton's cave-man duplicate selflessly sacrifices himself for the greater good.
  • When the new Doctor Who picks up Adam, a self-proclaimed genius, as a companion, the young man immediately turns around and tries to make time travel work for him by stealing schematics of future computers, not caring how he might disrupt the flow of history. This is in contrast to the selfless Rose, who dropped out of school (which she hated) without getting her A-Levels.
  • Battlestar Galactica's Gaius Baltar was probably the smartest person on his planet, and when he discovered that the Cylons had used him to destroy nearly all of humanity, his first reaction was to shirk the blame and try to hide his guilt from the other surviving humans, going so far as to frame another man for being a Cylon spy. At no point during the series' first season has Baltar expressed remorse for his part in the genocide of his race.
  • Willow, the geeky best friend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thoughtlessly manipulates the minds of her lover and friends to prevent them from being angry at her. Buffy's mentor, the bookish Giles, proves the be the most morally flexible character in the cast when he kills a helpless man to prevent his monstrous alter-ego from reemerging, and later when he distracts Buffy as the vengeful Robin Wood tries to kill her sometimes-ally Spike.
  • On Angel, the educated Wesley Windham-Pryce betrays Angel by kidnapping his son. Even more distressing is the staunchly moral Gunn, a street kid frustrated by his intellectual limitations, who receives a magical gift of legal knowledge. He becomes so enamored with his new erudition that he betrays his friends, causing the death of one of them, rather than lose it.
The mad scientist archetype exists for a reason--genius is the flip side of madness, and it is the role of geniuses to push the limits of the possible and the permissible, and sometimes to go too far--but the plot lines I've described deal with ordinary people, not geniuses, who have chosen to contribute to the world through their intellect rather than their muscles. Without fail, all of them lose sight of the difference between right and wrong, believing themselves to be more worthy than their less intelligent peers.

I would hazard a guess that the devaluation of the academic as a moral entity has something to do with the belief that intellectuals can't be spiritual. Again, that's a sterotype with roots in reality (although plenty of scientists and academics are also religious), but whence the assumption that a person needs to believe in God (or Goddess, or Gaia, or Buddha, of The Force, or some non-specific deity-ish bugaboo) in order to be moral? I find it vaguely offensive to suggest that the only reason people know that killing is wrong is that God told them so, or even that they don't kill because they fear God's retribution.

Morality is a tricky notion. Some people suggest that it is inherent to us as thinking beings (or as immortal sparks of the divine, whatever floats your boat), that something in us recoils from causing pain and damage to others. Others claim that morality is a construct of civilization, and that our animal nature, left to its own devices, would prompt us to act out of total selfishness to secure our own survival and comfort. I vacillate between the two, but either way I don't see why it should follow that an intellectual would be any less moral than an uneducated person. Whether from God or from society, the impulse to act morally should exist in all of us, and I see nothing in the process of education that would distance a person from that impulse.

I find it unfortunate, therefore, and not a little bit ironic, that the people who have made the sterotype of the intellectual as amoral and untrustworthy so prevalent should be the same kind of intelligent, educated people who make games like Myst.


heavy_foot said...

Er, I'm not sure where you are getting the bias toward religious thought. In most of the fiction you are quoting, religious types are at least as dangerous as the intellectual ones (particularly in Whedon's work.)

I think there's a better explanation for all these dangerous geeks in fiction - a lot of this fiction is created by geeks. Who knows better than ourselves how horrible we can be? How bloody-minded, self-involved, selfish, and cold?

These authors stared hard into the mirror, and wrote down what they saw.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure where you are getting the bias toward religious thought. In most of the fiction you are quoting, religious types are at least as dangerous as the intellectual ones

Yes, definitely, but also there's a separation between old-style Religious (organized religion with a church, judgmental, intolerant, usually some flavor of religion that we'd know such as Christianity) and spiritual-religious (vaguely New Age, feel-good, non-demanding, non-denominational mysticism). The first is a definite no-no whereas the last is so great, it's not just better than being smart, it's better than being stupid!

The educated characters I mentioned are usually materialists - they believe that the world exists only as we can see and sense it. When their moral deficiency is fixed, they usually have to be taught better (Willow goes on retreat with a coven and learns that "everything is connected", Baltar is being slowly converted by Number Six to her religion and asked to believe in things he can't see and knows don't make any sense).

These authors stared hard into the mirror, and wrote down what they saw.

That's an interesting notion, but I'm not sure it justifies so many characters whose moral deficiency stems from their education. I'll have to think about it some more.

Paul Brown said...

Most worryingly, a lot of these new depictions of the academic as heartless and amoral come from science fiction--supposedly the stronghold of geeks and rationalists.

I suspect that the reason this has happened is that when non-mainstream fiction was written for the "geeks" it held the ideals of education, knowledge and enlightenment in high esteem to appeal to both the authors and the audience who, in the main, belonged to a group who also held knowledge and education in high regard and were often abused for it (at my school I was the target for bullies for years until I grew bigger than all teh other kids - it helps to be big when you're clever). The problem with that is the audience that this appeals to is smaller than the mainstream who, possesing an average education and average intelligence, are probably not very keen on books that put them down. To appeal to a larger audience the authors / writers had to pander, to some degree, to the widely held distrust of educated and/or intelligent people.

Incidently, I wouldn't see either Willow or Wesley in this light; Willow's descent was more about addiction and the control that it can have over your life and how even the smartest of people can be controlled by their addiction.
Wesley's betrayal was more of a case of an educated, but naiive, man maturing and realising that sometimes hard decisions have to be made and you have to do what's right, no matter what it costs you. When he kidnapped Connor he believed that he was doing the right thing, even though he was later proven wrong.
The Buffy / Angel series is one of the better examples recently of characters being truly multi-faceted; if the characters hadn't matured then Zander and Willow would have stayed geeks, Cordelia would have stayed shallow and Wesley would have remained naiive. Their failings made them more human(!) and thus more involving.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The problem with that is the audience that this appeals to is smaller than the mainstream who, possesing an average education and average intelligence, are probably not very keen on books that put them down. To appeal to a larger audience the authors / writers had to pander, to some degree, to the widely held distrust of educated and/or intelligent people.

It's also probably not a coincidence that the examples I mentioned came from television (and, of course, computer games), which tends to present SF that's less rigorous. In written SF, we're still seeing a bias towards education and intelligence, so much so that it can sometimes put off readers who aren't genre insiders. I experience this most often when I read cyberpunk, whose authors sometimes give the impression of wanting to alienate any potential readers who aren't smart or hip enough to get all their obscure cultural references - which is, of course, the other end of the scale and in its way just as objectionable as anti-intellectualism.

Willow's descent was more about addiction and the control that it can have over your life and how even the smartest of people can be controlled by their addiction.

Yes, but I was thinking more of what happened before the addiction really took hold. I've been watching the entire series from beginning to end, and there are signs of her over-reliance on magic back in the 4th and 5th seasons. By the time we get to the 6th season, Willow is so used to relying on magic that she violates Tara's mind in order to get over a fight. That was what bothered more than the actual addiction - the notion that morality has gone out the window because Willow is so smart and powerful.

In Wesley's case, I agree that his intentions were good, but you have to admit that it's almost metaphorical, the way his intelligence traps him - he's the only one who can decipher the prophecy, and so he becomes the instrument of Sahjhan's plan.

KatieMorris said...

A new reader of your blog - I just wanted to say that I, too, adored Myst when I first found it and it also occupied my entire life for about three weeks. Even when i was at work my mind would be working on the puzzles and if I had a breakthrough would drop everything and "phone home" with my latest idea. It was wonderful escapism. Riven was even better, but I lost the track of the thing with Exile - the graphics were uninspiring and I only got about a third of the way through the game before Real Life took over and I never went back.

You have made me want to look at it again. These are the only computer games I have ever liked or enjoyed. Thanks for this entry.

Anonymous said...

This is way off the mark. Stories need an interesting bad guy, or bad woman. In order for this to happen the person must be smart, otherwise it would be a very boring story, no plot twists, nothing. No one's saying intellectuals are cruel and heartless. They just need cruel and hearless intellectuals or the story will put everyone to sleep.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's a difference between 'intelligent' and 'intellectual'. Most of the bad guys you'll find in fiction are indeed intelligent (and we could have an interesting discussion of why this trait isn't always considered a requirement for the hero/ine, but that's a discussion for another time), but not all of them are eggheads or academics.

Also, if you'll look at the list of examples I give, there's only one person on it - Baltar - who is a villain (and again, we could have a discussion over whether Baltar is an actual villain - certainly he has far less agency and initiative than your traditional villain). The other characters are either neutral or good guys seduced into doing evil by following their intelligence without regard of any other consideration (Willow, Wesley, Adam, etc.).

For that matter, go back to the original example, Myst. You've got two brothers. Story logic dictates that one of them has to remain evil and the other has to repent - I've got no problem with that. I'd just like to know why it had to be the intellectual brother (who, once again, was not an intellectual in the original story - he was only turned into one when the time came to turn him into a villain) and not the oafish one (who, in the original story, was the closest thing to an intellectual there was).

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog after a recommendation from a kindred spirit on the _Asimov's_ forum, and I just wanted to note that the authors behind the games changed after the second game, which might explain the somewhat jarring change in characterization/story/message.

~E Thomas

Keegan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keegan said...

I hate to dredge up old posts, but I just have to say I love the Myst series. In fact, I own all of them, including the defunct (and now resurrected)Uru. I do have to say though that there is a dramatic shift in writing at the second one. The original writers come back though for the fifth and final game, which is really fun, and more along the lines of Uru in its following of Yeesha's tracks.

While I personally do not like the Mysticism as a religion path it took, I think though that the fact it has the more educated people be more susceptible to addiction (of all things, not just drugs, but power and learning) is a interesting note. Not only are those of higher intelligence more likely to come to weird conclusions about the given universe around us, but they are also more given to being self-destructive. Sadly, this means that although being more intelligent, they should be able to realize the dangers of these things more than your average Joe, they regardless fall into it.

So to me, the fact that the more intelligent of the two, while being somewhat bad press for the more intellectual crowd, fall to the character role as bad guy, is still a good move, and somewhat truthful. The being able to plot and carry out a scheme of such complexity would require more intelligence itself.

End point? Intelligence is both a blessing and a curse. It can be used to greatly advance one's self and cause, or it can be the destruction. Just like any tool, your brain power can be dangerous if mishandled.

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