Yin and Yang

Does Humaginarium make video games or health promotion?

“Do I have a split personality?” The question may arise when we hold two contrasting or conflicting beliefs, at the same time, and instead of trying to resolve or erase them, we let their differences flourish. Indeed, we may expect benefits from the tension.

There are different ways to perceive a split. On the one hand, we may cringe in the presence of cognitive dissonance, a symptom of unbalance and stress. On the other hand, we may proudly quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

(He wrote function, not prosper. Just making that clear to contrarians in our midst.)

Oxymorons are beloved by folks with a split personality. Take the oxymoron serious games, for example. Games are played, and by definition gameplay is amusing, frivolous, entertaining, somewhat meaningless. A wonderful miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, weaves an entertaining tale of struggle and conquest by a chess player, but chess itself is just a game. When you learn how to play it, the only benefit is that you now know how to play it.

(The miniseries has other ideas.)

So why pair game with serious, when serious is mindful, thoughtful, analytical, earnest. I once asked Clark Abt, who coined the oxymoron as the title of his book in 1970. He said that his editor came up with the title, it seemed catchy, and he didn’t think more about it.

When Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, he had just this sort of oxymoron in mind. As an aesthete of the decadent fin de siècle, he thought a great deal more about it. Ultimately, it cost him his life.

Well then, there are two contrasting or conflicting beliefs whirling through my mind these days, not fatal but nonetheless twisty. They are video games and health promotion.

I believe in both. There’s even an oxymoron that I coined, scientific entertainment, in order to pace Clark and jolt readers or listeners into paying closer attention to my project. So far, I have preserved my ability to function, though I’m still striving to prosper.

So does Humaginarium create video games or health promotion? The answer is, both at the same time. Yes, I know that you can survey the field of health promotion and not find a single video game sprouting in its barren soil. You can likewise survey the video game industry and not find anything that quacks like health promotion. That’s because video games and health promotion have nothing to do with each other.

(Until now.)

While claiming that Humaginarium makes video games and health promotion, at the same time, and expects to benefit mightily because of it, I am challenged every day to put them in order, to prioritize, to say we do one in order to do the other (not the other in order to do the one).

This challenge was a damned nuisance until I referenced it to the concept of yin and yang, or dualistic-monism (another oxymoron): a “fruitful paradox.” Yin and yang are complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thus I arrived at the wheels within wheels of a conceptual breakthrough:

— Video games that are health promotion
— Art that is science
— Play that is work
— Freedom that is limiting
— Pleasure that is painful
— Silly that is smart
— Vulnerability that is strength
— Knowledge that is power

This list could go on. You probably have examples of your own.

The taijitu symbol famously depicts dualistic-monism. I chose a version of the symbol for this post, that reminds us, with markings around the circumference, that yin and yang are not reducible to this and that, subject and object, you and me. Instead it is a vortex of possibilities, in which every inferred possibility is accommodated and allowed to flourish. It is all-inclusive and balanced.

Not coincidentally, the quest of Humaginarium is for balance, or homeostasis. We are not trying to make sick people well, we are trying to make them happy. That may be the germ of our ultimate oxymoron.

Tai Chi Pa Kua Tu, the diagram of Tai Chi with Eight Trigrams, from Wikipedia

Mechanics Redux

Adventure is agon. Not merely fighting, but fighting for something that matters.

Mind Mapper. Experience in the morbid frontier is enchanting, intriguing, dangerous, bewildering. As a meaning maker, your job there is to filter experience for things that matter – things you can use – and relate them to an obscure metabolic condition that is ominously unfolding in the shadows. Like an archeologist, you interrogate each shard you pull from the biomuck for the story of what it is, how it works, where it came from, what it wants and why. The shards are tangible things with familiar, physical properties; moreover they are metaphors for other tangible things that were beyond your ken before Humaginarium: atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, fluids, organs, mechanisms. You capture their stories with the aid of dynamic mind mapping. This is the visual equivalent of “mapping sentences” that distill coherence from a churning chaos.

Dorian Gray. Users in the morbid frontier are not told what to do or forced to do anything. They do what they want in light of self-interest; which means, whatever it takes to win. Most users will do anything to win, yet their moral and intellectual lights are dim to begin with; and they lack wisdom to make good choices intuitively. So they wind up making and having to cope with bad decisions and failures. How does that affect them? The way crime affects Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel: by scourging the alter ego. Users who do bad things for the sake of quick wins – such as skirting or accommodating rather than confronting and controlling morbidity – may appear outwardly heroic, but they are wounded warriors in Diabetes Agonistes. They can eventually heal their wounds by atoning (changing, compensating) before it’s too late; or allow wounds to fester and settle into disability.

Monsterography. Maybe the worst thing about chronic morbidity in real life is transparency. You can’t see, hear or touch this disgusting thing that’s inside you, but is not you. You feel it when it flares, but even when that happens all you can see and hear and touch is not disease, but the tracks that disease leaves on your flesh and psyche after the ravages. The physical evidence indicates that your body itself is the disease: the perpetrator rather than the victim. You blame the victim for your pain and suffering. You’re revolted by your own body that is relentlessly harming you. You fear, you’re angry and you deny the body the way a prisoner despises a jail cell. “What have I done to deserve this? My body hates me.” But unlike life, in Diabetes Agonistes morbidity is not transparent. It appears as it feels: monsters in the body, but not of the body. Horrible monsters that you can more than revile: you can, if you’re clever, destroy them without ever mistaking them for the world they occupy. Monsters here are personified, parasitic, repulsive chronic diseases that users capture and kill while the godlike body lives on.

Combat. My game mechanics stress cognitive and emotional affordances. I want users to perceive and think their ways through challenges, not randomly shoot them down like snipers in a carnival booth. “Nice shot, lad! Here, have this worthless trinket as your reward.” I daresay I’m bored by meaningless kinesis in play of any kind including video games; and I believe that many adult players feel the same way. We want adventure much more than effects; and adventure by definition is purposeful risk-taking. In most play and in Diabetes Agonistes in particular, adventure is experienced as agon. Not merely fighting, but fighting for something that matters. That something – here and now – is wellness. The fighting that wins wellness is tense, noisy, horrifying, vicious, calamitous, brutal, raw, hopeless, heroic. Fun for its own sake, yes, but these many fights accrete into an epic struggle, a true adventure. Humaginarium rewards wins not with trinkets but with tokens that reinforce users for later, harder, nobler existential challenges.

I have a few other core mechanics for this post, but instead I will end with a reminder about context. Diabetes Agonistes is a simulation. It’s a system simulation of physiology and biochemistry; it’s also an experiential simulation of health literacy tempering medical self-efficacy. As a game simulation, interactivity is maximal; passive displays are minimal. Several times a minute during hours of play, users must ask themselves and the game tech: “What is this? What does it mean? How can I use this? What should I do?” Simulation then is our ultimate game mechanic. The faithful, behavioral representation of how chronic illness manifests inside the human body. Damn hard to get your head around, and incredibly fun to try.