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Monday, 30 October 2017

Common Sense – Neither Common Nor Sensible



I once told someone that Chinese people are more receptive to ideas like communism because the language contains no pronouns, and Chinese culture is therefore less amenable to ideas of individual liberty. This is, of course, an egregiously stupid idea, which I came up with in order to shut down a conversation I've been sick to death of having since about 1987. Firstly, there is more than one Chinese language, secondly, a lack of pronouns is neither here nor there - individual and group identities can be indicated at least as effectively through conjugation and so on, and thirdly, there is no such thing as 'Chinese culture' in the sense of a single, uniform set of ethnic practices across all people in the national construct now known as China. In spite of all these inherent, gaping invalidities, my interlocutor found this proposition to be immediately and profoundly convincing.

Why?

It basically comes down to the inherent vulnerability of 'common sense thinking' to specious argument. The whole essence of what we commonly (ha!) call common sense is one of reduction and closure. Nuance and complexity are deliberately stripped away with the ultimate goal of arriving at a simple, determinate conclusion. It's fundamentally geared towards disposal rather than contemplation – a bid to force the round peg of understanding into the square hole of definite and immutable fact. Where we most frequently see this pattern of thought is in polemic, usually of the conservative variety, but reasonably frequently across all bands of the socio-political spectrum.

I've never been able to understand our perennial love affair with common sense. As a framework for analysis, understanding, or even just simple cognition, it's appallingly unreliable. The very basis of the modus requires the thinker to isolate and subjectify - to operate in a solipsistic and essentially idiosyncratic framework, blithely selecting and rejecting elements of the subject at will in accordance with deliberately subjective, usually emotionally driven, criteria. There is an actual requirement for the creation of false equivalencies, reliance on biases (such as frequency), and deliberate or inadvertent disregard of known cognitive glitches, in order to create the oversimplified, selectively supported narrativisation and personalisation of reality which common sense thinking almost always produces.

This is especially apparent when we examine its operation in conspiracy theories. Pretty well every conspiracy theory, be it Flat Earth, Ancient Aliens, or 9/11 Truther, to name just a few, has as its central platform an appeal to common sense. How could they have made those pyramids without alien help? They're so big – it's just common sense. Buildings don't collapse like that, so the whole thing must have been an elaborate hoax – common sense. The world looks flat from where I'm standing – you guessed it: common sense again.

And this isn't limited to the lunatic fringe of cognitive dysfunction. Mainstream ideas backed by common sense have included all of the ugliest aspects of racial theory (people who look different must be innately different and therefore rankable by race), sexism (these uneducated women are uneducated, therefore educating them would be a waste), and xenophobia (the Iranian revolutionaries are crazy, and must therefore be indicative of the sanity of all Iranians). Common sense thinking is arguably responsible for the manifold survivals of prejudice, junk science, and the blatant lies and misrepresentations we widely accept as political truth.

Of course, common sense is very useful in some regards. For the kind of thinking required to decide not to run naked into the middle of moving traffic, common sense patterns of thought are admirably well suited. But when it comes to the navigation of complex, non-binary situations, it is rarely or never either appropriate, adequate, or even remotely valid, by simple virtue of its extreme reductionism. And this is important because we, as citizens, have powers and responsibilities to fulfil in a world which is unquestionably complex and non-binary.

All of which makes it very difficult to see a future any less confused and stupid than the present without a major re-examination of the insane assumption that animate bags of meat and water designed for social aggregation on the basis of emotional bonding are capable of valid rational thought by default.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sonia Kruger, Hero Of The People

It's easy to dismiss Sonia Kruger as an idiot, but this would be to ignore the important role she plays in public discourse.

There have been a couple of incidents where her opinions have landed her in trouble - her public support for a Moslem ban in Australia, and, more recently, her bizarre cheerleading for the federal government's push for the states to make all license photos available to a national facial recognition database. One can't help but feel for her, made a focal point for disputes 'bred of an airy word' as she gurns confusedly down the camera while sound engineers struggle frantically to mask the clank and grind of her brain attempting to navigate complexity.

See? Even I'm doing it - it's just too easy. She's blonde, and female, she speaks in a certain tone of voice I'm hardwired to associate with stupidity, and her default expression is one of slightly anxious confusion. For those who consider themselves politically sophisticated, she may as well just be a gigantic bullseye. But just like everyone else, it is beholden upon me to police my initial, knee jerk reactions. It is very important, if I'm to retain what credentials I have as an intellectual, to understand where she's coming from and what, in fact, she actually is.

I'm vague on what it is she actually does, but I am aware that she appears on breakfast television of some sort, which must mean that she is a very popular personality. And by extension, breakfast television must also be popular. This must mean that a significant portion of the electorate is fully engaged by inane chatter, footage of happy people being happy, and political analysis delivered by the same people who sell vacuum cleaners and mops over the phone. So Sonia must be representative of a large portion of the population. The inescapable conclusion is that there is a significant group who actually care about Ashton Kucher's opinions on Christmas, who are avid followers of the Kardashians, and who operate at a level of engagement so low that comments like, "I like it. I do. Bring it on. Big Brother, bring it on," constitute political thought.

This being the case, Kruger must be considered in the light of a champion of the people. Or at least, that section of the people who just can't be bothered thinking about this crap. A section which I am inclined to think is an actual majority. I'm pretty sure this is the section of the population being referred to when right wingnuts refer to 'the silent majority' - the confused, reactionary, but fundamentally decent bulk of lumpenproletariat, rocketed by wealth and geography into the middle class apparently against their will. This is, in actual fact, a voice we do not hear often enough. It is this voice which elected Trump in the US, Pauline Hanson in Queensland, and which quietly seethes as that minority capable of thinking in multisyllables dominates the debate whilst calling them idiots.

I personally think that deriding or shouting down this voice is a bad idea. As much as it might annoy me, the idea that the opinions of the befuddled are valid in and of themselves by virtue of the fact that they exist seems fundamental to the idea of democracy. Which means it's very important to engage - to explain, slowly and carefully and in words of two syllables or less, why they might want to think again.

While this is significantly less fun than pointing out that thinking like Sonia Kruger's would be embarrassing in an early primary classroom, it's probably the high road forward.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Stone Age Scorpions And Our Toxic Love Affair With Data Empiricism

Gobekli Tepe was one of those archaeological finds which drastically re-wrote the history of civilisation. Located in Turkey, it is an enormous set of monolithic stone constructions which could not possibly have been built by a small, disorganised group, dated definitively to a period which pre-dated conventional timeframes for the emergence of large, organised groups by thousands of years. Of course, it's impossible to upend age old assumptions about the birth of civilisation without attracting a fair grab bag of kooks and conspiracy nutters - that school of 'thought' which cannot accept any explanation which does not involve aliens - but at a more serious level, discoveries like this also reveal the current state of thought across a broad range of specialisations.

It's a truism that interpretations of history (including pre-history) are a sort of weathervane for the contemporary concerns of the historians in question. Just take a look at the weight given to climate change and complex systems based explanations in current thinking on issues such as the Bronze Age collapse, collapse of the Roman Empire, and the origins of the world wars. What's also interesting, though, is what these discourses reveal about contemporary methodologies of thought.

Archaeology and ancient history have become unlikely pioneers in the area of multi-disciplinary studies. Unlikely because these are traditionally such conservative fields, but easily comprehensible in hindsight given the nature of the undertaking. This means that there is an admirably collegiate culture, especially in archaeology, characterised by strong openness to discussion of finds and findings from pretty well any specialist in any field. A good example of this is the recent discussion of the Gobekli monoliths as an ancient astronomical observatory.

It all started, as most archaeological controversies start, with a stupid and poorly researched news article. A whole series of articles, more or less factually incorrect, ran with a paper put together by  engineers from Edinburgh University which purported to have used statistical data analysis to match symbols on the gigantic T-Pillars to astrological signs. Apart from variously mis-describing these engineers as 'archaeologists', or vaguely referring to them as 'scientists', every one of these articles described the findings of the paper as if they were incontrovertible fact. As it happens, the team at Gobekli Tepe run an excellent and very informative blog, possibly because they're sick of all the ancient alien morons taking all the oxygen. What can also be found on their blog is the discussion they had with the authors of the report.

Some of this is a little bit abstruse, so I'll provide a quick summary here for context. Basically, the engineers decided (for reasons which are unclear) that a particular scorpion symbol was a sign for the Zodiac constellation Scorpio. Using various data analytics tools, they then cross compared a selection of symbols on various pillars with the calculated positions of constellations in 10000 BCE. Finding that they were able to associate a number of animal symbols with current astrological designations, they then wrote their paper claiming that the site must be an observatory and, further to this, decided that one of the images must represent the still somewhat dubious Younger Dryas impact. So far, so depressingly standard for the use of data in academia. But what's really revealing here is the nature and content of the discussion which ended up happening between the archaeologists and the engineers.

The team at Gobekli Tepe, to whom I am admittedly partial, reacted fairly scornfully to this paper. They pointed out various flaws in the methodology and selection of evidence, and raised a huge question mark over the scorpion/Scorpio thing, making the very valid point that Zodiac signs as we know them aren't really attested prior to approximately 2000 BCE, and that those signs, which form the basis for current Zodiac iconography, are from a very great distance away from the site. Basically, they contended that the distance in time and space rendered the very first and basis assumption invalid, or at least highly dubious. They then went on to point out that the selection of pillars seemed random, was not in any way comprehensive, and had a distinct look of 'cherry picking' about it. And on top of all this, they raised the point that the monument had been altered and reconfigured over many generations, rendering a single purpose unlikely. This done, they pointed them to their own theories about the monuments being indicative of emerging social complexity for consideration.

The response from the engineers was revealing. The engineers airily dismissed the social complexity theory in a single truncated sentence which labelled it as 'opinion'. They then proceeded to blame the archaeologists' slow publication rate (it's actually really fast) for the incompleteness of their data. No coherent defence was made of the basis assumption beyond 'scorpions have always stood for Scorpio', which is ludicrous, and they also embarked on a long, inexpert, and rather sterile discourse on the survival and transmission of stories. All of this was capped off with the bland assertion that “… given the statistical basis [of their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.”

And there's the kicker. It doesn't matter that the base assumptions for their data analysis are basically pants. The fact that archaeologists and ancient historians spend their lives studying ancient iconography and mythology is utterly insignificant. The fundamental flaws in their evidence selection are irrelevant. All that matters is that their analysis is 'statistical', which must mean it accesses the highest possible level of truth because 'science'. This is unbelievably moronic and, unfortunately, symptomatic of a lot of thinking today.

We can see evidence of this malaise shot through every aspect of our lives. From elaborate psychometric testing to bizarre, data driven theories of law enforcement, the absolute bane of poorly interpreted statistics and numbers in general in politics, and the bizarre and occasionally insane conclusions of data models in genetics, linguistics, and urban planning - data would appear to be the new god. Don't get me wrong - statistical analysis and sufficient data to do it with are vital components of any scientific or theoretical inquiry, but the fundamental component of all of this is humans. Data doesn't think. And if we try to make it do our thinking for us instead of using it as it should be used - to validate or check human thinking - we risk becoming as stupid as the machines we make and use. And that, if you actually think about the last time you asked a computer a question, is pretty damn stupid.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Vegas And The Downside Of Political Activation

Overnight, I watched an appalling, horrifying thing unfold in one of my favourite cities, Las Vegas. There's no real need to rehash the details here, as what little that is known, heavily salted with speculation and deplorable sensationalism, is already ubiquitous. What's also unfortunately ubiquitous is the immediate politicisation of the event.

I suppose this isn't any individual's fault. Mass shootings in the US are all too frequent, and the basically pre-programmed response of influencers and opinion makers is to turn them into a discussion on gun control. I use the term 'pre-programmed' advisedly in that it's a bone deep reflex, rationalised on the grounds that the cause trumps considerations of decency, appropriateness, and restraint - the argument is that gun control is the root of the problem, and that the imperative to advocate is necessarily greater than any other.

This may or may not be the case. I personally agree with the limitation of access to firearms, but that's neither here nor there in this discussion. Because what I'm mostly aware of is the life changing horror of being involved in a shooting in any way. The gut wrenching terror of knowing friends or loved ones might have been senselessly taken in an incident one can neither parse, influence, or affect. The sight, real or imagined (both equally abhorrent) of faces known and cared for, down in the dust and bloodied with random or targeted violence. The human aspect, basically. The one which, in most cases, has been dealt with in curt expressions of vague sympathy before the immediate commencement of political drumming.

I know the tributes and vigils are coming. In the next few days, there will be moments of silence, candlelit gatherings, and declarations of solidarity in the face of pain. But what I wonder is if it's worth thinking about the fact that these have become emphatically secondary responses. That the order of reaction is now outrage, political advocacy and argument, and then grief. I wonder if it's worth thinking about what that says about the nature of our humanity in this new historical epoch of the information age.

Because I think that if we do think about it, we'll see that it doesn't say anything very good about us at all.

Monday, 18 September 2017

How We Know Things


Around the seventeenth century, a funny thing called 'The Enlightenment' was happening. One of the effects of this movement was that sundry gentry from all over Europe suddenly decided that a productive use of their time would be to dabble about collecting odds and ends from the deep past and either construct elaborate fantasies around them, or simply label them and shunt them into vast private collections. These people were called 'antiquarians', and one of them, Sir Robert Cotton, had what was possibly the biggest collection of Anglo Saxon documents extant at the time. This collection was eventually willed to the British nation, and was moved to the ironically named Ashburnham Manor for safekeeping. Ironic because the house burnt to the ground on the 23rd of October, 1731. The fire destroyed many of the the 563 manuscripts in the library, but one which was miraculously preserved was Beowulf, labelled as such, and bound, for some reason, within a collection of mediaeval bestiaries. Another antiquarian, Icelandic scholar G J Thorkelin, translated and copied Beowulf, then took it to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Copenhagen was occupied by Napoleon's forces at the time and the translation, along with Thorkelin's house, was destroyed in a British bombardment in 1807. Luckily, Thorkelin himself was not destroyed, and he did a do-over, thus ensuring that the earliest full version of a British literary work was preserved, by the skin of its teeth.

Years later, a grand, crazy old widow called Edith Pretty, left alone in a big house in Suffolk, became interested in attempting to contact her dead husband through spiritualism - a movement that was big in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and one which couldn't be more different from The Enlightenment. Spiritualist 'thinking' prompted Mrs Pretty to decide that she'd had a bunch of prophetic dreams about the collection of artificial mounds on her property. So she toddled off to the local university, hired a self-taught archaeologist (the amusingly named Basil Brown), and told him to get digging. This was in 1938. Over the next few years, subject to minor interruptions owing to WWII, it was gradually determined that these mounds were dark age ship burials containing the richest hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure discovered then or since. Amongst the finds were two objects - a drinking horn and boar helmet - which exactly matched descriptions of objects found in Beowulf. The boar helmet is the only one of its kind that has ever been found, helmets from dark age Britain being about as common as honest parliamentarians, and is the best and most dramatic evidence that the world described in Beowulf has firm anchors in reality - is, in fact, a real world.

The survival of the Beowulf manuscript, and the attestation of its world in the Sutton Hoo burial, account for a worryingly large proportion of all that we know about Britain between 600 and 1000CE. If the folks fighting the fire at Ashburnham had been just a little less assiduous, or that random Icelander just a little less dogged, that old lady just a little less crazy; there would be a yawning gap in our knowledge of a period which is pretty dark to us as it is. Which is why we used to call it 'The Dark Ages'. Without these two random and tortuous narratives of exploration and discovery, the history of English literature and the Anglo Saxon period would be dramatically different. And wrong. And there's the thing. We know we're not as wrong as we might have been, thanks to all kinds of dumb luck, but what we don't and can't know is how wrong we still are. This isn't limited to obscure aspects of British history, either. If Schonky Schliemann had never met that spy, he'd never have dug that huge trench in Hissarlik and found the city variously known as 'Wilusa', 'Ilium', or 'Troy'. If Bedouin shepherd Mohammed Edh-Dhib hadn't fallen into that cave, our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible would be missing one thousand years of its history as a manuscript. If anonymous bad boys hadn't burnt down the palace at Hattusas, we would never, ever have been able to confirm the existence of an entire empire (Hittite), which vanished from the record in around 1200BCE, its memory surviving only in a handful of casual mentions in a bible story about someone else (Abraham).

Given, then, that what we know about ourselves is based in large part on what we know about our past, and that what we know about our past is governed in large part by random chance, it's difficult to see how anyone goes around being certain about anything. People who know this are of course aware of the very tenuous and probably wildly unreliable thread that connects us to the origins of the present, and thus are born those rather fatuous aphorisms about knowledgeable people being aware of their ignorance. There is a mad tendency to try to reduce the sum of our knowledge into what I like to call 'Dinner Party Facts'. All people came out of Africa. The Jews have always lived in Israel. The Bible forbids [insert thing here]. None of these things, taken as hardened, absolute information, is entirely true. Simple narratives and certain facts are the playthings of the ignorant and the stupid. The acquisition and application of knowledge is not and cannot be the philatelogical process of collecting 'facts', as there really is no such thing. 'Knowing' things consists of the much harder, much less comfortable endeavour to understand and synthesise what little we have, and above all, to maintain an awareness of the dark immensities of ignorance which form the shifting basis of all our knowledge.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Kardashian Gap


There are many arguments for and against the legitimacy of the fame of the Kardashians. Most of the arguments for have to do either with a perception of their positive influence on someone or other, or their existence as a kind of fait accomplis. They're famous now, so are therefore important to know about. The arguments against are pretty obvious, and are mostly put in the form of questions about why they exist, what, at the end of the day, they actually do, and so on and so forth.

What these arguments ignore is that there really isn't any legitimate basis for fame of this kind, and nor does there need to be. The Kardashians and others of their ilk are not rational products of a rational system, and it's a little bit foolish to try and explain them as such. Just like Rockefeller, Beau Brummell, Trump in his pre-presidential phase, or Alcibiades, the Kardashians are clearly manifestations of the cult of celebrity. So far, so obvious. But what I wonder is how clearly we see the implications of the very existence of this cult.

The last half century or so has seen a massive acceleration in attempts to systematise and formalise social and political mechanisms. The recently revolutionary notion of 'bureaucracy' has become ubiquitous, standard rhetoric for the nations of the west always includes talk about being 'a nation of laws', and most people in western democracies, if you really push them, will admit that their particular societies are at least supposed to be based on equity, fairness, and egalitarianism. Given this, why aren't we all currently living in our own various utopias of freedom and whatnot?

There's a lot of potential answers to this question. Many people will argue quite cogently that the gap between ideology and practice is created by corruption, greed, institutionalised unfairness, popular apathy, and a host of other factors. I don't disagree, but I think that there's probably something deeper at play. In a world where everybody is shouting about fairness and compassion, the fact that so little of these things seem to exist in our systems must surely be down to something lurking beneath our conscious impulses. Something that we're not entirely aware of.

And the Kardashians are my proof of its existence. In short, the Kardashians and other celebrity cults speak to the insane human compulsion to create gods and aristocrats. As far back as we can see in time, humans have always set up shrines or images to some sort of divine or semi-divine personification of a perfect or ideal other. It doesn't matter how many systems you put in place, how much you try to scrub out the influence of church or tribe or nobility - all this does is create a gap into which something like the Kardashians can spring fully formed as objects of trivial worship. Huge sections of our informal systems of culture are built solely around the elevation and emulation of these people, and built in such a way as to leave absolutely no doubt that the veneration of these images is very much an aspect of the popular will. As in, nobody is being compelled to slavishly admire these idiots - they're actually paying to do it. And this teaches us an important lesson about the current limits of the human animal when it comes to the acceptance and judicious use of freedom.

It would seem that our social development has outstripped our collective cognitive evolution. Still today, unchanged for thousands of years, it's all too possible to observe the inability of people en masse to understand anything if it is not cast in the form of a story containing at least one hero and one villain. And it would seem that it is collectively impossible for us to understand even ourselves without recourse to some more or less artificially constructed ideal. The impulse to quarantine our aspirations into some inaccessible, otherworldly realm is a recurring theme in the story of humanity's constant falling short of its ideals. The horrible familiarity of our current problems is a symptom of the fundamentally unchanging patterning of our minds.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Much Neglected Art Form


With the exception of a handful of pioneering academics and specialist publications, serious critical consideration of gaming as an art form feels, to me, to be seriously lacking. Sure, it's commonly accepted that gaming is now very much mainstream, but it's pretty clear that what most people are talking about when they say this is Call of Duty and Candy Crush. I'd argue that this is a terrible mistake. High end, complex games are material which should not - cannot - be sequestered generationally. Academics and reviewers who are rich in experience and expertise in other forms need to engage with this art form or face missing out on the richest and most complex thing to happen to creative expression since someone ran a reel of film through a projector. This is driven not least by the necessarily multi-disciplinary approach which must be applied to fully understand such works. There are few better arguments for this than the astonishing master work, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The sheer scope of the work is awe inspiring. In volume alone, the creative output dwarfs any contemporary work in any other medium, and there's the added consideration that all of this content has been crafted with loving care and attention to detail, and each element linked and interlinked in a decision/narrative tree of mind-boggling complexity. And as if that weren't enough, it's beautiful as well.


Yehezkel Kaufmann's conception of the meta-divine realm may not, on the surface, seem to have much to do with a sword-swinging, bodice-ripping computer game, but then that's not all there is to The Witcher - not by a long shot. Kaufmann's idea that the pagan universe contains a realm of being from which the gods themselves spring is important for many reasons, but here we're focussed on the way this affects ancient versus modern mentalities. In a culture dominated by transcendent monotheism, our understanding of ancient mentalities can be seriously hampered by the lingering formative effect of the big three. The idea that there is a place from which the gods come creates startlingly different interactions with the tangible universe. Depending on the nature of the relevant mythology, commonplaces like blood or water can become imbued with divine significance, and long-forgotten features of everyday life like sacred landscapes and ritual calendars suddenly make perfect sense. By transposing and synthesising many systems of meta-divinity into interactive dramatic and narrative form, The Witcher allows us to experience and understand these mentalities through a faithful and sensitive simulation of sacred liminality. Vaguely remembered and poorly understood superstitions are expanded and explained in a way which promotes understanding of the dim past in ways which history teachers can only dream about. It may seem unlikely, but anyone who has engaged with The Witcher is much better equipped to understand complex ideas like immanence and meta-divinity than someone who hasn't, simply because, on some level, these concepts have been lived and experienced.


The broad premise of the game centres on The Wild Hunt, a piece of European folklore having to do with the storm gods, elves, the departed, or the dread hound, Black Shook, depending on where in Europe the tale is encountered. The story goes that whenever there's a storm, it is The Wild Hunt galloping across the sky in pursuit of souls, and if Black Shook catches your eye, you are forever lost. So far, so simple. Layered in amongst this, however, is the idea of the protagonist/avatar, Geralt of Rivia, as a specially bred monster hunter called a Witcher. What this creates (besides complex explorations of the morality of professional warrior-hood) is a pretext for the compilation of a wonderfully comprehensive bestiary of practically every nightmare creature from Classical Greece to modern times, as well as somewhat more ambiguous or benign supernatural fauna. As an ethnographic achievement, The Witcher's bestiary dwarfs most examples from the mediaeval period, the time at which this literary form reached its peak, and for sheer preservation and detail of monstrous traditions, professional and amateur ethnographers and folklorists alike should find significant utility in the collection, in spite of its fantastical lack of context and attribution. It's not just about listing or preservation, though. The genius of the bestiary is in its detail and synthesis. The grand literary achievement of the monster lore in The Witcher is the deft manner in which an enormous, eclectic grab bag of superstition, folklore, and myth has been woven together into a coherent universe. The effect of this is to prompt new and interesting ways of thinking about humanity's fascination with the monstrous. The juxtaposition of disparate traditions highlights their similarities, and hints at the central truths of human conceptions of monsters, as well as exploring the essential dichotomy of beauty and horror. Common threads in logic, ritual, cult, and system catalyse and highlight ideas about transformation, therio and anthropomorphism, and humanity's intimate yet profoundly uneasy relationship with the natural world and the murky intersections of the conscious and unconscious.


The Witcher's literary merits do not merely rest, however, on mimesis, archaism, and preservation. The foregoing aspects, as substantial as they are, are merely peripheral elements of the narrative. The story itself is a grand interweaving of the public and personal, high drama and low comedy, intertextuality and resonance both comic and poignant, all heavily imbued with themes of justice, humanism, high statecraft and the idea that all decisions, however small, can have significant impacts. The element of active decision making present in gaming means that the thematic messaging has an immediacy and impact which far outstrips the capacity of any other form of literature. The player is not just an observer of the work's themes, but a responsible actor in their realisation. It is this element of responsibility which, in a well-crafted game, provides a far more intense experience of the core ideas of a story than is possible in print, image or film. The player is bowled along from decision to decision, the fates of individuals, communities, and nations in their hands. This isn't just about fantasy or role playing - the world of The Witcher is peopled with characters depicted such that the player invests emotionally in their existence, and the potent consequence of this is that the ideas and dillemmae unpacked within the story have vibrant and actual life. This constant load of moral responsibility forces players to consider fundamental questions of good and evil, and to interrogate their own moral choices, the basis and validity of their ethical positions and comfortable assumptions - the exact same questioning which is provided, at a considerably less confronting distance, by the philosophical bases of tragedy.


I often encounter a weird bias, when it comes to the visual product of games, reminiscent of the old prejudice against comic books and graphic novels. These latter are, of course, firmly entrenched in the mainstream now, along with the quotidian obviousness of Banksy, and the near meaningless jingoism of other forms of pop art. And yet the magnificent beauty of so much of gaming's visual art gets little to no serious attention. Whether it be hyper-realistic cinematic trailers like the one above, or the dauntingly global pool of art and art styles subject to mimesis, pastiche, elaboration, or straight use, The Witcher is a staggering compendium of artistic achievement.


The landscape itself is moulded with fine aesthetic (though definitely not geographical) logic. Dead ground, terrain, and cover are not just used tactically in The Witcher, but are also exploited to provide countless openings of sudden and breathtaking vistas. The construction is as intricate and deliberate as any Classical garden or Romantic grotto, and at least as powerfully and consistently sublime. The two key differences, however, are in the fact that the world of The Witcher is not a single garden, but a series of fully realised and populated simulated worlds, and that this is a landscape which is not limited to vicarious or imaginative experience, at least visually. It is also, to a certain extent, performative, in that the aesthetic reality of each environment is predictive and productive of the nature of its events and populations. This performativity is not just unidirectional either - the player's actions will form and shape sections of the world, providing dramatic and immediate visual manifestations of moral and sociological impact.

Beauty, male and female, pristine and grotesque, is a significant part of The Witcher's visual world. Echoes of Rococo and Pre-Raphaelite starry-eyed eroticism abound in the depiction of practically every character, be they young, old, halt, hale, pristine, or disfigured. There is also the uncomfortable Geigerian sexualisation of the grotesque and horrific. Monsters are lovingly rendered with exaggerations of tongue, breast, thigh, and curve, which make a further complex comment on the essential nature of monsterism - the inflation, subversion, or inversion of decidedly human characteristics which separates the monstrous from the merely frightening. Visually as well as textually, The Witcher points again and again to the concept of our darkest evils deriving their genesis and expression from deep within our image and awareness of ourselves.


At this point, this author's dilletantism in the field of visual art brings about a frustrating halt. While quite a lot of the game is recognisable as run of the mill fantasy art, there seem to be frequent excursions into much higher realms of visual expression. Someone much better qualified should devote some attention to this work - attention which it richly deserves.

The sheer plethoric volume of material in The Witcher is such that I haven't even touched on music, higher ethics, or the detailed exploration of human relationships abundantly present in the game. Questions about the value and absolute integrity of sovereignty, the dichotomous relationship of freedom and civilisation, historical simulation and representation, and much much more are all contained within this sprawling framework. And it's not just The Witcher, though it's a prime example. Whether the player is deciding the overall policy of intergalactic colonies in Mass Effect, conducting complex, multi-handed truce negotiations in Skyrim, or weighing the competing philosophies of transhumanism, reactionism, and liberalism in Fallout, the medium of gaming can provide a depth and level of narrative and thematic engagement unrivalled in immersion, impact, and sophistication in any other existing form. Creators, critics, and academics ignore this world at their peril, and to their significant loss.