Leave Reality at Home

One of the most contentious issues surrounding criticisms of many forms of media, particularly in films and videogames, is the issue of realism. How realistic a videogame is, how accurately it replicates the world around us both visually and thematically, is the most frequently cited factor in determining how immersive a game is, how much you ‘get into it’, and films that keep their feet very much in the real world delight both nerds and film critics alike by responding favourably to their nit-picking. But the place of realism in these media is not a simple question of ‘as much realism as possible is better’; finding the ideally realistic situation (which is a phrase I totally didn’t just make up) is a delicate balance that can vary enormously from one product to another, and getting that balance right is frequently the key to success.

That too much realism can be a bad thing can be demonstrated quite easily on both a thematic and visual front. To deal with the visual sphere of things first, I believe I have talked before about ‘the uncanny valley’, which is originated as a robotics term first hypothesised by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The theory, now supported by research from the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro (who specialises in making hyper-realistic robots), states that as a robot gets steadily more and more human in appearance, humans tend to react more favourably to it, until we reach a high point of a stylised, human-like appearance that is nonetheless clearly non-human. Beyond this point, however, our reactions to such a robot get dramatically worse, as the design starts to look less like a human-like robot and more like a very weird looking human, until we get to the point at which the two are indistinguishable from one another and we reach another peak. This dip in positive reacton, the point where faces start to look ‘creepy’, is known as the uncanny valley, and the principle can be applied just as easily to computer graphics as it can to robots. The main way of overcoming the issue involves a careful design process intended to stylise certain features; in other words, the only way to make something quite realistic not look creepy is to make it selectively less realistic. Thus, hyper-realism is not always the way forward in drawn/animated forms of media, and won’t be until the magical end-goal of photorealistic graphics are achieved. If that ever happens.

However, the uncanny valley is far less interesting than the questions that arise when considering the idea of thematic realism (which I again totally didn’t just make up). These are the extent to which stories are realistic, or aspects of a story, or events in a film and somesuch, and here we arrive at an apparent double standard. Here, our evidence comes from nerds; as we all know, film nerds (and I suspect everyone else if they can find them) delight in pointing out continuity errors in everything they watch (a personal favourite is the ‘Hollywood’ sign in the remake of The Italian Job that quite clearly says OHLLYWOOD at one camera angle), and are prepared to go into a veritable tizz of enjoyment when something apparently implausible is somehow able to adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics. Being realistic is clearly something that can add a great deal to a film, indicating that the director has really thought about this; not only is this frequently an indicator of a properly good film, but it also helps satisfy a nerd’s natural desire to know all the details and background (which is the reason, by the way, that comic books spend so much of their time referencing to overcomplicated bits of canon).

However, evidence that reality is not at the core of our enjoyment when it comes to film and gaming can be quite easily revealed by considering the enormous popularity of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We all of course know that these worlds are not real and, despite a lot of the jargon spouted in sci-fi to satisfy the already mentioned nerd curiosity, we also know that they fundamentally cannot be real. There is no such thing as magic, no dilithium crystals, no hyperspace and no elves, but that doesn’t prevent the idea of them from enjoying massive popularity from all sides. I mean, just about the biggest film of last summer was The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes fight a group of giant monsters sent through a magical portal by an ancient Norse god; about as realistic as a tap-dancing elephant, and yet most agreed as to the general awesomeness of that film. These fantastical, otherworldly and/or downright ridiculous worlds and stories have barely any bearing on the real world, and yet somehow this somehow makes it better.

The key detail here is, I think, the concept of escapism. Possibly the single biggest reason why we watch films, spend hours in front of Netflix, dedicate days of our life to videogames, is in pursuit of escapism; to get away from the mundaneness of our world and escape into our own little fantasy. We can follow a super-soldier blasting through waves of bad guys such as we all dream to be able to do, we can play as a hero with otherworldly magic at our fingertips , we can lead our sports teams to glory like we could never do in real life. Some of these stories take place in a realistic setting, others in a world of fantasy, yet in all the real pull factor is the same; we are getting to play or see a world that we fantasise about being able to live ourselves, and yet cannot.

The trick of successfully incorporating reality into these worlds is, therefore, one of supporting our escapism. In certain situations, such as in an ultra-realistic modern military shooter, an increasingly realistic situation makes this situation more like our fantasy, and as such adds to the immersion and the joy of the escapism; when we are facing challenges similar to those experienced by real soldiers (or at least the over-romanticised view of soldiering that we in fact fantasise about, rather than the day-to-day drudgery that is so often ignored), it makes our fantasy seem more tangible, fuelling the idea that we are, in fact, living the dream. On the other hand, applying the wrong sort of realism to a situation (like, say, not being able to make the impossible jumps or failing to have perfect balance) can kill the fantasy, reminding us just as easily as the unreality of a continuity error that this fantasy we are entertaining cannot actually happen, reminding us of the real world and ruining all the fun. There is, therefore, a kind of thematic uncanny valley as well; a state at which the reality of a film or videogame is just… wrong, and is thus able to take us out of the act of escapism. The location of this valley, however, is a lot harder to plot on a graph.

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

I read a lot; I have done since I was a kid. Brian Jacques, JK Rowling, Caroline Lawrence and dozens of other authors’ work sped through my young mind, throwing off ideas, philosophies, and any other random stuff I found interesting in all directions. However, as any committed reader will tell you, after a while flicking through any genre all the ‘low hanging fruit’, the good books everyone’s heard of, will soon be absorbed, and it is often quite a task to find reliable sources of good reading material. It was for partly this reason that I, some years ago, turned to the fantasy genre because, like it or loathe it, it is impossible to deny the sheer volume of stuff, and good stuff too, that is there. Mountains of books have been written for it, many of which are truly huge (I refer to volumes 11 and 12 of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, which I have yet to pluck up the courage to actually read, if anyone doubts this fact), and the presence of so many different subgenres (who can compare George RR Martin, creator of A Game of Thrones, with Terry Pratchett, of Discworld fame) and different ideas gives it a nice level of innovation within a relatively safe, predictable sphere of existence.

This sheer volume of work does create one or two issues, most notably the fact that it can be often hard to consult with other fans about ‘epic sagas’ you picked up in the library that they may never have even heard of (hands up how many of you have heard of Raymond E Feist, who really got me started in this genre)- there’s just so much stuff, and not much of it can be said to be standard reading material for fantasy fans. However, there is one point of consistency, one author everyone’s read, and who can always be used as a reliable, if high, benchmark. I speak, of course, of the work of JRR Tolkein.

As has been well documented, John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not an author by trade or any especial inclination; he was an academic, a professor of first Anglo-Saxon and later English Language & Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, for 34 years no less. He first rose to real academic prominence in 1936, when he gave (and later published) a seminal lecture entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works of English literature, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem from around the 8th century AD detailing the adventures of a warrior/king named Beowulf, and Tolkein’s lecture defined many contemporary thoughts about it as a work of literature.

However, there was something about Beowulf that was desperately sad to Tolkein; it was just about the only surviving piece of Old English mythology, and certainly the only one with any degree of public knowledge. Tolkein was a keen student of Germanic mythology and that of other nations, and it always pained him that his home nation had no such traditional mythology to be called upon, all the Saxon stories having been effectively wiped out with the coming of the Normans in 1066. Even our most famous ‘myths’, those of King Arthur, came from a couple of mentions in 8th century texts, and were only formalised by Normans- Sir Thomas Malory didn’t write Le Morte d’Arthur, the first full set of the Arthurian legends, until 1485, and there is plenty of evidence that he made most of it up. It never struck Tolkein as being how a myth should be; ancient, passed down father to son over innumerable generations until it became so ingrained as to be considered true. Tolkein’s response to what he saw as a lamentable gap in our heritage was decidedly pragmatic- he began building his own mythological world.

Since he was a linguistic scholar, Tolkein began by working with what he new; languages. His primary efforts were concerned with elvish, which he invented his own alphabet and grammar for and eventually developed into as deep and fully-fleshed a tongue as you could imagine. He then began experimenting with writing mythology based around the language- building a world of the Dark Ages and before that was as special, fantastical and magical as a story should be to become a fully-fledged myth (you will notice that at the start of The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkein refers to how we don’t see much of hobbits any more, implying that his world was set in the past rather than the alternate universe).

His first work in this field was the Quenta Silmarillion, a title that translates (from elvish) as “the Tale of the Silmarils”. It is a collection of stories and legends supposedly originating from the First Age of his world, although compiled by an Englishman during the Dark Ages from tales edited during the Fourth Age, after the passing of the elves. Tolkein started this work multiple times without ever finishing, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his son published The Silmarillion as a finished article.

However, Tolkein also had a family with young children, and took delight in writing stories for them. Every Christmas (he was, incidentally, a devout Catholic) he wrote letters to them from Father Christmas that took the form of short stories (again, not published until after his death), and wrote numerous other tales for them. A few of these, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, either drew inspiration from or became part of his world (or ‘legendarium’, as it is also known), but he never expected any of them to become popular. And they weren’t- until he, bored out of his mind marking exam papers one day in around 1930, found a blank back page and began writing another, longer story for them, beginning with the immortal lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This work, what would later become The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), was set in the Third Age of his legendarium and is soon to be made into a  series of three films (don’t ask me how that works, given that it’s shorter than each one of the books making up The Lord Of The Rings that each got a film to themselves, but whatever). Like his other stories, he never intended it to be much more than a diverting adventure for his children, and for 4 years after its completion in 1932 it was just that. However, Tolkein was a generous soul who would frequently lend his stories to friends, and one of those, a student named Elaine Griffiths, showed it to another friend called Susan Dagnall. Dagnall worked at the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and she was so impressed upon reading it that she showed it to Stanley Unwin. Unwin lent the book to his son Rayner to review (this was his way of earning pocket money), who described it as ‘suitable for children between the ages of 6 and 12’ (kids were clearly a lot more formal and eloquent where he grew up). Unwin published the book, and everyone loved it. It recieved many glowing reviews in an almost universally positive critical reception, and one of the first reviews came from Tolkein’s friend CS Lewis in The Times, who wrote:

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

In many ways, that quote describes all that was great about Tolkein’s writing; an almost childish, gleeful imagination combined with the brute seriousness of his academic work, that made it feel like a very, very real fantasy world. However, this was most definitely not the end of JRR Tolkein, and since I am rapidly going over length, the rest of the story will have to wait until next time…

Think of the CHILDREN!

My last post dealt with the way that sex in our society is something kept very much under wraps, dusted under the carpet and kept out of the conversation of everyday life as much as possible. This post however could be said to be completely debunking every point I made in the last one, for today I will be considering the issue of the increasing use & prevalence of sex, sexuality and sexual connotations in society today.

The main people voicing a strong opinion against this trend are, of course, the kind of militant parents who started a war in the South Park movie (good film, see it if you can). They argue that modern media and marketing strategies place a lot of emphasis on the use of sex symbols and sexual connotations, and that these strategies are, more worryingly, being aimed at a steadily younger audience. Young girls in particular are often quoted as being aggressively targeted by clothing companies from as young as 8, companies trying to buy them into the whole ‘looks and clothes are the most important thing ever’ mentality in order to turn them into fashion-obsessed consumers as early as possible.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence to support their theory as to the increased prevalence of sexual symbolism in today’s culture. Sport may be a good place to look for examples- modern female sports stars are nowadays judged mainly by the way they look, and in many sports where men and women have roughly equal exposure (such as tennis) female competitors often have larger sponsorship deals. Is this because they are better at persuading people that sports equipment is awesome? No, it’s because they are capable of advertising perfume by wearing hardly any clothes and exploiting their sex appeal (think Maria Sharapova, whose game suffered heavily in the few years after she won Wimbledon as she turned into more of a model than a tennis player). And then what about tabloid newspapers and their page 3 hooks for readers, ‘lads mags’ that now have enough status to be invited as judges for the nomination of Sports Personality of The Year (not the BBC’s proudest moment), and clothes companies that now market ‘sexy high heels’ at under 10s?

So… where can this be traced back to? Well, if we, as the pressure groups tend to, blame everything on businesses and clothing companies, their reasoning is actually very simple. Firstly, to consider the issue of children being targeted in one way or another, it’s a well recognised fact that kids love to appear grown-up. They get fussy about their ages (“I’m not 10, I’m 10 and a half!”), copy their parents’ habits and what they see on TV, hate not being able to do stuff on account of age or size and might even try on Mummy and Daddy’s clothes when they’re a bit younger. A child’s ultimate fantasy (and probably one shared by a few adults as well) is to live with all the opportunity and ability of an adult, and without any of the responsibility. For them, therefore, all this sexually-related material that permeates their life is not about sex (which they probably don’t understand properly if at all), but about adulthood, and this just screams ‘awesome’ directly at them. We must also remember that it’s not just the kids who’re at it either; parents love it when their children appear ‘grown-up’ and mature because it makes them seem special, a cut above their peers, subtly suggesting to parents that not only are their kids better than everyone else’s, but that they themselves are better parents. Therefore, whilst some parents might be appalled at the sight of a 9 year old in heels and a miniskirt, others might think of her as quite the young woman, and perhaps even be jealous of the maturity that child seems to have compared to theirs.

And then we must consider a fact that countless bits of market research has shown- sex appeal sells stuff. Even if children don’t get the symbolism, their parents do, and whether the stuff they’re buying is for them or their kids, a bright, smiling, good-looking woman is more likely to encourage them to buy something than an advert featuring a dour looking bloke showing no interest whatsoever. This is especially true when we consider fields such as scent, beauty products and fashionable clothing, all of which are selling products actively designed to make you seem more attractive and, according to Freud at least, get you more sex. Even if you don’t make that connection consciously, there’s no doubt that your subconscious mind picks up on the connection, and that’s before we even consider how totally blatant use of sex, such as in tabloid page 3 columns, acts as a straight marketing hook to sell things. Put simply, sex appeal is an undeniably successful marketing strategy that makes perfect sense, from a purely fiscal point of view, to use.

To finish off, I would like to offer just a snippet of a history lesson. The 1920s were a great time for the USA, producing an economic boom thanks to the likes of Henry Ford,  massive growths in cultural areas such as major league sport, and reinventing social mobility. For the first time, women had a degree of social freedom, particularly among those known as ‘flappers’, who would cut their hair short, drink and smoke in direct and deliberate contravention of the classical female norm. The invention of the car gave young people freedom from their parents and invented the date for the first time, and in jazz music the young of the Roaring Twenties had their own music and social scene as well. This lead, among other things, to a huge increase in sexual freedom among the young, and the media of the time reflected this. This was especially true in the cinema, a relatively new phenomenon, which quickly developed the first sex symbols in the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow, prompting advertising and marketing of the time to begin exploiting sex appeal as a means to sell their products. Understandably, the older generation went into uproar over this cultural revolution, but it didn’t make a scrap of difference, and a fresh wave of American culture swept across the world.

Sound familiar? It should do- it’s the same thing people are complaining about now, and people have complained in the same way about the changes in every successive generation, be it teenagers in the 50s, hippies in the 60s, or metal in the 70s. Culture changes, and that’s just a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about it, but we must remember that society has survived each new wave of culture and come through each none the worse for wear. If you want to uphold society, then forming a pressure group for each successive thing that offends you probably isn’t the bet way to weather the storm. You’ll have far better results just sticking to what you do like, upholding the values you think are important, and trying to pass those off to your children. It’ll be a lot less painful.