Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Collapsing Bridge and Ontotheology

One of the classic tropes of video gaming is the collapsing bridge. The first example I remember for certain comes within seconds of starting Contra. I wouldn't be shocked if someone could remind me of a collapsing bridge with earlier systems -- maybe on Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man or even Pitfall? I'm sure the Tomb Raider series has made use of the collapsing bridge more than once.

The way this works is that the bridge is stable until you (the character) start running across it; then, with each step forward, the plank behind you begins to collapse. It leads to an interesting and unavoidable dynamic:

1. Once the character begins the run, he cannot turn around. See also: Sotapanna.

2. Nothing will happen until the character begins his run; i.e., he may safely stay on this side of the chasm/river.

3. The character may not decide that "this plank is the one that will save me" and stop his running. Every plank collapses after a moment.

4. The character may trust that the bridge will not collapse faster than he can run--an earnest effort at crossing is usually all that counts.

So let's talk ontotheology. As I was walking today it this collapsing bridge image occurred to me as an almost perfect description of my (current) understanding of the spiritual life. But now, true to the metaphor, even this plank seems shaky.

In video games, when you make it across the collapsing bridge, you may stand for a moment and reflect: "Those planks did exist, and they did allow me to bridge an otherwise uncrossable chasm--but they are no longer existing." Memory allows us to access this knowledge: the forms are always changing; or, as the Buddha said, "Everything is on fire."

But the Western mind often makes the mistake of thinking that changed forms signify untruth. I really believe this is a mistake. Indeed, I credit my extensive experience with video games as a child as the source of my willingness to dabble in Eastern philosophy, metaphysics, and spirituality. If you've never noticed that reincarnation is the absolute foundation of most video games, then you may not agree with me on this point: video games have taught Western children much about Eastern spirituality in a way that has not felt violent or unwelcome. Yes, America may have won the ground war in WWII, but the Japanese seem to be in the process of winning "the battle for hearts and minds."

At least from my perspective. Of course, the first time I encountered a collapsing bridge, I'm pretty sure I tried to turn around halfway across, only to find myself hanging in mid-air for a moment like the Coyote-fooled-by-the-roadrunner. In other words: I died. Quick to learn from experience, however, I succeeded (nervously) in my second effort at crossing. From that moment, I knew that every bridge I encountered on Contra might fall from beneath my feet -- memory served as my teacher.

Then I bought a new system and forgot all about Contra. I spent hours learning to move Lara Croft in "three" dimensions on my Playstation, successfully conquered eight or nine levels, and then came to a bridge... and started walking. Once again, halfway across, I panicked and tried to turn back, then realized I couldn't, jumped up into the air and grasped at nothing -- then fell to my death.

But in this experience, a new kind of memory is born -- Toni Morrison might call it rememory. It is the knowledge born of memory that declares not only: I had better keep running any time I see a shaky-looking bridge on Tomb Raider. Unlike memory, rememory declares: any time you see a shaky-looking bridge on a video game, RUN!

This is the knowledge of forms & structure, and I have come to believe that it is not just a valuable way of knowing in video games.

When I was a video-game playing teenager, I never thought consciously about stuff like "ontotheology" (whatever that is); but if forced to give an account, I would've used words like God and maybe Jesus and maybe Tr-th.

Admittedly, that plank has fallen for me (...more than once; sometimes we encounter the same plank multiple times.) -- but in case you've been a bad reader in this post: that does not mean those things were not true when I believed them. The next plank I stepped on had something to do with America and Ayn Rand (collapsed). The next had to do with Plato and Goodness (collapsed). The next had to do with existentialism and Sergei Nechaev (collapsed). The next had something to do with personal psychology, Eastern metaphysics, and video games (that one collapsed this morning).

Thank goodness for unavoidable dynamic #4, huh? Here's a plank long-fallen, its forms totally different, its content ever-unchanging:

...if a man gives with a certain self-considerate generosity to the poor; abstains from doing downright ill to any man; does his convenient best in a general way to do good to his whole race; takes watchful loving care of his wife and children, relatives, and friends; is perfectly tolerant to all other men's opinions, whatever they may be; is an honest dealer, an honest citizen, and all that; and more especially if he believe that there is a God for infidels, as well as for believers, and acts upon that belief; then, though such a man falls infinitely short of the (heavenly) standard, though all his actions are entirely (earthly); -- yet such a man need never lastingly despond, because he is sometimes guilty of some minor offense: -- hasty words, impulsively returning a blow, fits of domestic petulance, selfish enjoyment of a glass of wine while he knows there are those around him who lack a loaf of bread. I say he need never lastingly despond on account of his perpetual liability to these things; because not to do them, and their like, would be to be an angel, (and heavenly); whereas, he is a man and (earthly). (source)

In other words: keep running!--trust in ontotheological-video-game-Rule-#4.


Wishydig said...

Was it all three (personal psychology, Eastern metaphysics, and video games) that caused the collapse? You'll have to tell me more.

The collapsing bridge reminds me of a point in Sonic(2?) on Sega Genesis towards the end of the game where he runs around a plane, much of the time behind a screen. You could only tell his position by the screen following him up and down and back and forth as he "moved" around.

To progress I had to jump of the edge of the plane and trust that a draft would catch and carry me over to the next platform. I can't remember why I first made that leap and found out that the draft was there. In fact it was there every time. But my stomach would flip a little bit every time I jumped.

After making that jump there was one more robot to destroy before entering the last level. It wasn't an easy kill but I found out (by stumbling around blindly) that there was an extra life hidden on the plane so I would never run out. If the robot killed me I could just go back and get the extra life that was replaced every time. I had every chance I needed handed to me.

Why would a video game offer that? And without a cheat? It had something to do with knowing that my stomach would flip every time and my endless reincarnation was an important part of my experience.


Casey said...

Yes, right. That's the stuff!

Anonymous said...

This may complicate matters, but me and my buddy Justin (who was much better at Contra than me) used to play two player together.

When we got to the bridges, the timing would have to be very precise, or one of us would die. If we both made it across unscathed though, we had a much better chance of beating the game on the later levels.

We beat this Contra 3 men on Hard senior year of High School. It required two NES Advantage controllers...proof that you need the right tools going in to even have the possibility of making it to the next level.

The other strange thing is that we beat the game on a Friday night before a Saturday Cross Country meet...all of our teammates didn't care at all, but Justin and I jumped around screaming and hugging each other.

Watching someone else arrive at Tr-th is nothing like actually arriving at it...they just assumed we were crazy because they had never "played the game" and by that I mean "lived."

Anonymous said...

And you can borrow lives from each other...

and what about "continues"?

Wishydig said...

This is going to sound a little too Matrix but I'll say it anyway. There's a big difference between knowing which path to take, and knowing which path you're taking.

But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. --Matthew 7.14

Hey -- with Jerry Falwell dead I can be the new fat bible thumper.

Casey said...

Michael, you make me nervous. But you're right, of course... my Dad always likes to emphasize positive thinking, but never before emphasizing "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," and suggesting that I better think seriously about what that means.

So again: getting this Ph.D. in literature is really just training to better interpret the Bible, I suspect...