Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Power of the Restart Button

           > Restart
Are you sure you want to restar?
Exits tab, and reopens the game
You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
Well, luckily I did not get very far that time. I am not very good at Zork. I tried playing it by memory alone and could neither open the trap door in the house (> Down; The door is closed) nor get past the bottom of the canyon (> insert cardinal direction; You can’t go that way)[1]. Having my character swing the sword at himself served only to bring me to hell; repenting and prayer are useless and there is no hope to continue the game (> Repent; You can’t even do that). And so I would close the tab and try again. And again. Luckily, my virtue text-avatar had no distinct feelings about this; each time I restarted, he was as ready as ever to begin his quest in search of treasure, glory and maybe, just maybe getting into Flood Control Dam Number 3.
If only this consequence free setting extended into the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. By the end of the novel, Shelley has managed to introduce to us to Victor Frankenstein, given us a relatively complete history of his childhood[2] and shown us the sequence of events that ultimately lead to his destruction. At no point, until he lays on his death bed, exhausted, beaten, dejected – a shell of a human being – does Victor take any semblance of responsibility for his actions. Sure, he admits that if he had not brought the creature to life that Justine, William (and later Clerval and Elisabeth) would still be alive. He even accuses himself of personally murdering them because of his actions. But this is not the same as owning up to the actions of the monster. The only person who he tries to convince of this is a magistrate in Switzerland, besides that, he only muses personally about his wrongdoings[3]
Knowing these two things – that in Zork, I played with a total lack of consequences and that this same attitude towards them can be attributed to Victor Frankenstein – can we reasonably argue that his attitude towards consequences is in anyway similar to my attitude towards them in Zork[4]? To make this argument, we must have a better understanding of two things: Victor’s upbringing and the attitudes that Zork gives the player.
Victor was raised in a way I can best relate to a small dog owned by a Hollywood elite, namely, in his own words, “…their plaything and their idol”[5]. Living a carefree life on the banks of a lake in Switzerland, Victor was never wanting of anything. His parents loved him and nurtured him. He was the eldest son so he was set to inherit his father’s land and continue to do so as he pleases, with absolutely no forethought or responsibility. Throughout the story, terrible events happen to Frankenstein, often directly due to his own lack of planning[6]. However, he never does anything to change the course of these events; he simply lets them happen and then feels awful for letting them happen. Victor is clearly unable to deal with the reality of the situations he creates.
Is this any different than my haphazard attempts at glory in Zork? In many ways, Victor’s decision-making process mirrors my own while playing video games. He traverses Europe in a quest for scientific glory, and when things go horribly awry, he runs to the far corners of the globe to try and escape his creation, just as I can continue to go ‘east’ away from a tough puzzle. Sometimes he musters the courage to attempt and fight the monster – notably in the extremes of the Swiss Alps – but then is convinced by the monster to spare its life. The only time Victor shows any responsibility is when he refuses to complete the second creature. It is the first time he plans his actions out and thinks trough what may happen. Compare this to what Zork teaches us: that it is okay to just ‘restart’ when things go wrong. If the Cyclops at the end of the maze kills me, I can just start back in front of a white house. When any and all consequences can be negated, one falls into the habit of disregarding them. As Victor is raised in a care-free world, removed from the struggles that the average person would have faced (think Delacy and his family), he learns to disregard the consequences in much the same way.
I would like to address one point that should be implied here. This argument – that the care-free attitude video games give their players, and Victor Frankenstein’s attitude towards real consequences are the same – is not saying that video game make one irresponsible. The key to this is that Zork lets me be carefree in the world of Zork. Just because I can infinitely restart the game, does not mean that I now believe that I can infinitely restart real life. In the ‘realistic’ (the world of the novel is analogous to real life, i.e. the story follows actual human conventions when dealing with society, human nature, simply disregard the science fiction and it can be a period story of the late 1800’s) setting of the story, Victor is presumably raised as a real human who does not have a sense of responsibility. That means, if he were to live in today’s society and commit some monstrous act it would be entirely his own fault; it would not be the fault of whatever video games he may have played (or the metal music that he may have listened to for that matter).

[1] Apparently there is also a grate somewhere in the forest? I never found it, but that also does not surprise me
[2] We will come back to this, for it will play a central role in our later argument
[3] I do not believe this is taking responsibility. When I was growing up, my parents got me to understand (though it may have taken a few years) that simply recognizing your part and apologizing, only to repeat the action anyway is not an acceptable definition of responsibility.
[4] Or any video game, I personally think the Sims or the Grand Theft Auto games might be, if nothing else, a more extreme example – nothing screams ‘lack of personal responsibility’ than the utter apathy and senseless violence of those two games.
[5] Mary Shelley’s Frnakenstein, Page 24
[6] Raising the monster, defending Justine etc.


Nikki Moriello said...

I really like your initial restart excerpt at the beginning of your essay because I think it ties in perfectly with the prompt and the way you go about answering the question. I also love the way you compare Victor to a Hollywood dog because it's so appropriate and absurd at the same time. At the end of your explanation for why Victor doesn't take responsibility for his actions and the resultant unfortunate consequences, you say he, "feels awful for letting them happen." I think you might want to take this out or perhaps just reword it because I understand what you're trying to say, but it sort of comes across as a contradiction because it's right after you talk about how he doesn't take any responsibility for his actions and I think that his remorse is taking responsibility in some form.
Maybe you should vary your syntax a little bit throughout your explanation? You have good ideas and responses, but I think you need to work on the wording a little bit. It just seems to get a little repetitive.
Lastly, I think you need a more solid conclusion to the essay. As a whole, I find your work to be solid, but I don't think the conclusion stands up to the rest of the piece as it should. It doesn't tie everything together, but presents the new idea that what we learn from video games should/does not apply to real life. This is a good thought, but I think the conclusion is the wrong place to put it. You didn't give yourself enough room to discuss it.

Adam said...

I enjoyed your attempt to repent. I also think your way of introducing restarting was well executed.

Your discussion of Frankenstein's failure to take full responsibility is ok. It's not that you're wrong, but there really is a lot of nuance here. For instance, there's the passage at the end, when Frankenstein abandons his attempt at repentance. He goes back and forth a lot through the course of the novel, actually. Your citations lean awfully hard on the beginning of the novel - I'd like to see a more detailed discussion of relevant later parts. Which isn't, again, to say that you're wrong - just that your discussion lacks a degree of depth.

Given that you insist on discussing both the real world and the world of the game (correctly so), I'd like to see more about how they impact one another. For instance - aren't you frustrated when you restart again and again? A (relative) freedom from consequences isn't quite the same as happiness, is it? That struck me as an important dimension to the argument you're trying to make.

Overall: The whole idea of restarting is well begun here, but you repeat yourself a little by the end, rather than developing it through a closer reading of Frankenstein. Note, for instance, that Frankenstein makes an attempt to restart (with the monster and the female monster), things go awry. In other words, I'd like to see some of the complications of this arguments addressed.

Note that some of Nikki's comments, esp. re: the conclusion, parallel mine to an extent.