Friday, March 20, 2015

PlayStation 4: "Perfect Day" — and Empathy (22 March 2014)

            Let us contemplate for a moment the opening scene of the "Perfect Day" TV commercial for PlayStation 4 (2013-14).

            The second and third scenes are also good — present-day on-road mayhem and post-disaster, high-tech, ultraviolent warfare — but the opening gets us back to basics: two heavily armored knights, battling to the death of one while serenading each other with Lou Reed's sweetly sentimental "Perfect Day," with the key lyric here "Oh it's such a perfect day; / I'm glad I spend it with you."

            The ad is effective in part because it's funny, and I am going to ask the class, okay, why is it funny?

            The first part of the answer is, of course, "Incongruity": if two things don't go together in a really quirky way, there's a good chance our response will be laughter. There's the sentimental song on the sound track, and there's the visual combat and implied gore.

            Additionally, though, there's the comedy of a complex, resolved paradox, where the incongruity turns out to be not so incongruous and — as you know or by now have guessed — helpful for pushing the PlayStation product.

            The two guys trying to kill one another in increasingly high-tech ways really are having a good time together, unseen, off-screen, managing their great-looking, if murderous, avatars, who are also having a good time, until, in the virtual world, both or one or the other is dead.

            The implied relationship between the real-world guys is what a fraternity brother of mine called "bundling-board buddies": two friends not necessarily screwing (that was "butt-hole buddies") but still, metaphorically, "sleeping together." Or, in this case, we have two guys enjoying "a perfect day" with one another playing PlayStation: probably two dorks, but in the virtual world they are beautiful, macho, and baaaad-ass muthafuckas; and it is comically weird to think of them sensitively feeling the perfectness of the day spent in close relationship.

            Which gets us back to incongruity and why the ad is funny, and, in a really indirect kind of way, why the ad is intellectually useful.

            For all the fairly-late medieval and renaissance bullshit of the chivalric Romance — Camelot and all that — knights were central to an exploitive military aristocracy, and Lancelot of Monty Python and the Holy Grail got it about right: knights were generally thugs, and sensitivity to the feelings of others would get in the way of business.

            Knights were also, and to a large extent have remained, high-ranking role models; and it was significant that the literary chivalric bullshit moved them to be lovers as well as fighters and, eventually, even poets. (The Japanese Samurai were way ahead of Europe on that last bit.) This idea was pushed to a kind of absurdity in some European Renaissance presentations of Hercules — the archetypal violent dumb jock — as an epitome of civilization and a great orator, but the thought was nice.

            And, again, significant: In my sort of book of the month, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), Steven Pinker stresses that part of "the civilizing process" for humans, and the later "humanitarian revolution" came when knightly thugs who'd moved up in the world became courtiers. At the same time, as Pinker notes elsewhere and you probably learned in some history class or other — at the same time, as the medieval world moved into the modern, it became almost respectable to go into "trade" and make money in commerce.

            And we can throw in that warfare became increasingly sophisticated, and that success in warfare was determined less by possessing the personal brute force to smash in an enemy's head and more by abilities such as the talent of seeing into an enemy's mind and outwit him.

            Neither Beowulf fighting a monster nor a video-game knight delivering a death-thrust to a downed opponent needs to get in touch with his own feelings beyond murderous rage, much less understand the feelings and thoughts of others. Courtiers, merchants, orators, and successful generals do need to.

            Now quite possibly the most reproductively successful human being of all time was Genghis Khan, who left parts of his DNA over large swaths of the Eurasian population, and The Great Khan doesn't seem to have been much into empathy beyond figuring out that massacring the inhabitants of City N along the route of the horde was effective in encouraging the inhabitants of Cities N+1, 2, 3, and so forth to flee or surrender. It's hard to picture him pronouncing a Bill-Clintonesque, "I feel your terror."

            It's funny that the two knights in the PlayStation commercial are feeling each other's joy — but comprehensible. It's unlikely Genghis Khan or real knights would get it. They were not, but we are, products of cultures who came to respect courtiers more than brawlers or even most conquerors, cultures that came at least to accept merchants, and even politicians and sales reps: people whose jobs require them — whose jobs require many of us — to read the moods and feelings of others, and, to some extent, be able to figure out what others are thinking and, as we say "see things from their points of view."

            That young Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and others — even Mongols — mostly crush the skulls of one another in game worlds is progress, as is the fact that as I write the standoff between major world powers over Crimea and Ukraine remains a standoff, not yet anyway slipping into another Crimean War or moving toward the horrific "glorious" slaughter of The-Guns-of-August/World War I variety. It's progress for which we should thank, in small part, the phenomena that shrank the ranks of noble knights and put their chivalry into our fantasy lives. We should be grateful that so many of us in our real-worlds are ignoble and nonchivalric and went into "trade" and business and sales and politics and nursing and teaching and other work that requires us to take really seriously — to do our jobs — the thoughts and feelings and attitudes and desires of others.

            So, gameboys, let's laugh at that touchy-feely stuff, but let's all of us show some gratitude toward increases in empathy. 

No comments:

Post a Comment