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

Pathways

We breathe, we metabolize, we live.

A pathway is a technique, a course of action, a series of steps, a way forward. Once a pathway is recognized it may be observed or used with predictable results. Until then, it’s just an idea.

Diabetes Agonistes introduces folks to metabolic pathways. Which folks? Adults with poor health and science literacy, who risk metabolic syndrome and diabetes type 2, and happen to like video games. About 87 million Americans fit that description at present.

Folks can’t see or feel their metabolic pathways, but can (and do) ignore them. Metabolism is autonomic, kind of like breathing, you don’t have to think about it. It just happens.

Metabolic pathways are exquisitely ordered chemical reactions in all 30 trillion cells of the human body: every cell, every moment, 24/7/365. They’re also present in 100 trillion bacterial cells that colonize the human gut, feeding each person’s metabolism like a vast supply chain, starting the minute they are born and continuing, never ceasing, for as long as they live.

You know without being told: if you stop breathing for any reason, your life will soon be on the line. You know this from experience, you didn’t have to learn it in school. Likewise if any of the chemical reactions churning through your cells quit or misfire, your life may sooner or later be at risk. You may become sick, but unfortunately you don’t know that, because unlike breathing, you haven’t consciously experienced it. You haven’t learned it. You’re allowed to ignore it.

Yet people who play Diabetes Agonistes are aware their metabolic risks, because they have consciously experienced them in a simulation, and striven to correct them, and vowed to avoid them, and practiced how to control them when faulty biochemistry wrenches health from their body, like juice from a ripe apple.

So then: we breathe, we metabolize, we live. To be frank, breathing is part of metabolism. The oxygen that flows into our lungs when we inhale, the carbon dioxide that flows out when we exhale, these are the gaseous fuel and exhaust fumes of our constant metabolism.

Metabolic pathways keep us alive. It’s been argued that they are life itself, the essential difference between a human body and, say, a marble statue. Life on earth began more than three billion years ago, long long before any human was conceived: in the toxic swirling tides of a cooling planet. What made life start in that chemical broth, after billions of years of cosmic deadness and nothingness? What made Homo sapiens eventually show up on earth with our big ideas about some ethereal spark? Was it God that started it? Nope. It was the earliest metabolic pathways randomly oxidizing compounds in a primordial muck. That was our real Garden of Eden, properly evidenced and understood.

Diabetes Agonistes is a video game about the modern incarnation of those pathways inside our bodies. The game is a complex scientific simulation, a stroke of genius for regular folks, helping them understand and enjoy something that may make them healthier and happier and live longer.

Diabetes Agonistes is also a pathway of a different kind, a new idea that is about to be proven with evidence, or dashed to smithereens in failure. We’re nearing that crossroads.

You see, Diabetes Agonistes is a cloud-based app that transforms people who play it. Makes them smarter without teaching them. Helps them create knowledge and intuition and skills from their own experience, from trial and error and deliberate practice and fooling around and making stuff up. It creates understanding as subtly and organically as their cells synthesize proteins. Not by telling them what to do or how to do things, but encouraging them to figure it all out on their own. Nudging them up the path. They can do it if they try.

Unlike any entertainment I know, Diabetes Agonistes challenges folks to figure out some of the hardest problems ever faced by scientists and clinicians and educators and health policymakers, and use their discoveries to change the quality of their lives.

Step by tiny step up a crystal scaffold that penetrates the clouds of not knowing, and emerges into sunlight and starlight of truth and beauty about the human body, about the mind, about the spirit, about the difference between existing as a lump of clay and living as a noble human being.

Diabetes Agonistes is a new and different kind of pathway: a technique, a course of action, a series of steps, a way forward, an engine of predictable results. It is fast becoming more than a cool idea.