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
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
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
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
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.