Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


A drawing of the movie poster from Scott Pilgrim vs the World

I went to see this movie with friends yesterday, and really enjoyed it. I hadn't read the books but maybe I enjoyed it even more for not knowing anything.

Some weird feelings are settling out for me today, so I'd like to write about them now, while they are fresh.

Games' Symbolism is Formative

Zelda: Link to the Past came out around 1991, so I was about 12 years old when I first played it. When I was a bit younger, I played Zelda I and II, and it was a lovely, social thing. We would head to lunch at my friend's house to methodically burn bushes, or to write down long Gambling Cave sequences in a futile effort to crack the RNG.

Perhaps I'm on the cusp of the possible age to where playing videogames could be a formative experience. There are older videogames than Zelda I but they were under a certain threshold for complexity with respect to their symbolism, I think.

Religion

The human brain does weird things. Just like we used to find all sorts of nonexistent patterns in Zelda's Gambling Caves (something every slot addict must surely do) so too we find all sorts of unlikely analogies or explanations for other natural acts.

To pick a hopefully not-too-incendiary example, think about the US constitution. Certainly it's very important to the US, but what's so strange to an outsider like me is that people are so affixed to it, even to a religious extent.

In fact President Obama recently referred to it as the "Founder's Writ", which sounds a lot like "Holy Writ" to me, and Old Timey term for the Bible. Americans friends in earshot get this: it doesn't work like this in other countries. In Canada at least we really don't take our constitution that seriously, though it is of course important. Does this blow your mind? =)

Humans tend to get our brains wrapped tightly around certain ideas or symbols, extracting ever more meaning from them, and coming to ever more totally strange conclusions about the natural world because of it.

Scott Pilgrim

The imagery in Scott Pilgrim helped me to understand videogames in a different way. Symbols in games have the same kind of mythology that powers religious beliefs. They are, kooky though they might seem, a way to understand the real world.

There are some obvious examples from the movie, but I won't spoil anything here. Instead, let's pick an interesting example from games in general.

Warp Gates

Flashing and animated drawing of a warp gate from Zelda: Link to the Past

Warp gates to a game designer are a handy way to refashion the game space to help the player get around. They reshape space in a way which really isn't in accord with the natural world, but which is useful.

If you grew up playing games with warp gates, maybe these are part of your mythology. The idea of a door might have a religious significance to you, as something that can somehow reshape space.

I'm not suggesting our generation are somehow confused as to the laws of nature, but interacting with gateways in games maybe has changed our perception of what a door can be. Even if that understanding never causes one to doubt the real purpose or structure of a door, it has become a powerful symbol for changing place, for shortcutting.

My Warp Gate

Actually, I just remembered something amazing. When I was about 10, between two houses one day, I saw a "cut through" or pedestrian walkway. I had passed by hundreds of times, but never noticed it. Naturally, I went through. What I found I called The Lost City of Paved Alleys. This was a paradise to me as a kid, because you could ride your bike very fast without worrying about cars so much.

So there was a real warp gate for me. I even still use it sometimes! Here it is:

View Larger Map

Baptism and Eucharist

Drawing of a small plastic communion cup with grape juice, and some broken communion crackers with the caption Christian Needs Salvation Badly beside it

The most powerful symbols in a religion are interactive. I grew up in a church where certain things were very important: Baptism (where you are dunked under water as a sort of dedication to God) and Communion (which is where you eat bread and grape juice that symbolizes your belief in Jesus' Resurrection, past and future.) There were other interactive parts of a church service, like singing songs or saying special prayers, which are really pretty compelling especially when you do them in sync, as a group.

Psychologists will proscribe sometimes physical actions for you to take in helping to grow past some difficulty you are having. Maybe this sounds crazy to some people but it makes sense to me.

I once knew somebody who believed that screaming at the top of your lungs was really therapeutic. I'm sure he was right. He had some other weird habits.

Abstraction

We have to a large extent already abstracted the world we live in. Cars are real-life warp gates, bending and shaping space. You will understand this if you walk or bike somewhere that you would normally drive (but walking is best for this, as bikes are warp-gates, too.)

We rarely think of cities as a wild space, but I think that's how animals see them; forests with lots of people. For us they are an abstraction of place-nodes, and lines linking them. These are meaningless to animals, though they doubtless have their own strange way of understanding it (maybe in terms of danger, food, noise, and water.)

The day I went to see Scott Pilgrim we saw a Magpie (a local variant of crow) bathing in a fountain, inside a jewlery store. Somehow he got into the mall. After his bath he went next door for some candy. I'm not making this up.

Nature

The risk for us is that this abstraction will one day come tumbling down, for instance if oil becomes scarce, or we nuke ourselves into oblivion, or our system of money loses meaning through massive fraud or mismanagement. These apocalypses sit themselves behind all our symbols, because we do at some level recognize our abstractions for what they are.

I'm not sure the role that videogame-mythology might have in a world without all the modern abstractions, but it interests me.

2010-08-22


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