Beauty

How video games point to enlightenment

In 2008, Metafilter member aeschenkarnos wrote a review of the outside world as if it were a video game:

The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player’s ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players’ tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

It received a score of 7/10.

Since then, a few people have written about how treating your real life like a video game can improve your productivity and personal development. Jane McGonigal, one of my design heroes, developed a game to make people happier and healthier in real life. And many “games” have been created to teach meditation, calm the mind, and even “promote compassion, altruism and teamwork”.

There are clear parallels between the activities shown and taught in these “games” and the ones that multiple religions point to as leading to truth and enlightenment. Video games let you build a character, developing their “experience points” along the way; religions provide paths of growth toward holiness. Video games let you explore alternative realities; Buddhism and Christianity both explain that this world is not the “true” reality; the promised kingdom.

But piloting a character in a video game, and recognizing their false nature, is different than believing you yourself are a character in a game. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is the most well-known explanation of how we might actually be living inside a simulation, while Robin Sloan wrote a fascinating piece about how to best succeed–and not get turned off–if that were true:

If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.

However, I had almost the opposite reaction. Instead of making me strive for simulated immortality, taking such a perspective mostly changes how I view everyday things. When I imagine I’m a character in a game, a few things change:

  • I pay more attention to the present moment: the people I’m with, the sights and sounds and feelings. It really is a well-designed game (“the graphics are beyond comparison”), but you only appreciate that by paying attention. And why play a game if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
  • My phone, the internet, and TV are less tempting. Who logs into a video game just to have their character watch TV?
  • In general I’m less swayed by indulgences. Drinking alcohol and eating junk food aren’t going to help with that leveling up, and being tired is something I can fix by simply clicking on a few more hours of sleep.
  • It’s easier to do the chores and tasks I know I need to do. Somehow viewing myself as a character makes it easier for me to tell him to get to work.
  • I feel braver and more willing to take risks, and try new things. Games reward exploration.

Interestingly, all these are also benefits I’ve found from prayer and meditation. Games and religious practices share the desire to reduce the ego and the identification with the “self”. If you don’t believe that this is your true self–your intended form–you can handle setbacks and struggles better (after all, they’re not about you). And you can still invest in and grow your “self”, but the stress of that and fear of failure goes away when you believe the true consequences and rewards are separate from this reality.

The danger in this perspective is descending into nihilism, where you believe that this life has no purpose. Reminding myself of the personal benefits of growth helps avoid that, but also looking deeply at the beauty of nature and society all around shows me the value of simply being there to experience it.

So if you see me moving a bit awkwardly around the world, gazing intently at every little thing, and trying weird new practices every day, cut me some slack–I’m still learning how to play this game.

William Carlos Williams and Imagism

I’m enjoying the poetry of William Carlos Williams, credited as one of the leaders of the Imagist movement, which sought to rescue poetry from the vague and flowery language of Georgian Romanticism.

My favorite is the funny and surprising “This Is Just To Say“, which is also great for parodies.

(This is just to say)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Ezra Pound described the core tenets of Imagism as:

  • Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

To the extent product design can reflect poetry, those would be pretty good design principles too.

Why isn’t software beautiful?

It feels to me that software design, despite its intense cultural focus, huge business opportunity, and worldwide effort, isn’t as beautiful, elegant, or compelling as other forms of art and design. Held up against films, music, fashion, physical products and even video games, almost all software feels flat, utilitarian, and uninspired. Why is that? I have a few hypotheses:

  • Not enough people are designing software – This is changing fast, but software design has been a very small and elite field for most of its history. When a larger and more diverse set of a population gets involved in something, the results quickly get better. Think about how most top runners are Kenyan; many top baseball players Puerto Rican–in each case, that is the dominant sport and goal for the youth of the country. We need more people to design software.
  • We don’t yet have the right tools – We admire the very first cave painters, movie makers, and book publishers because the act of creating anything was hard for them. But we’d hardly call that artwork “beautiful” by today’s standards. The tools to create paintings, films, and prints today are so advanced that almost anyone can learn and practice those art forms. Software, however, is still impossible to create without significant technical training.
  • Beauty isn’t useful – My friend Chris often invokes “the Pepsi Challenge”–namely, the difference between liking something for a minute and living with it for weeks. The same design that looks great up on a foamcore board, or in a science fiction movie, starts to grate on you when its ornamentations get in your way for the hundredth time. That’s the reason we had, and abandoned, long cool Flash intros on websites.
  • Utility isn’t sexy – Similarly, a design that quickly and efficiently takes care of things and gets out of your way doesn’t even give you a chance to admire it. You might feel satisfaction with the results, but that’s a long way from awe and lust at its form.
  • We don’t have the right support and organizational structures – Painters and writers generally work alone; filmmakers and video games have a producer/director split. But most software is designed by a triad of project managers, software engineers, and interface designers.
  • We don’t really try – This is a tough one to swallow, but I think it’s fair to say that right now most software designers don’t really pursue beauty as a central goal. Many designers care deeply about elegance, simplicity, and craft, but I’ve rarely met one who speaks about the emotional journey of the viewer, or who thinks about the storyline of their interactions.

Overall, it does seem that software design is quickly improving. Perhaps it will just take more time to get to the place that these other mediums have reached.

When the lights go down in the city

Some beautiful images of what cities–and the sky–would look like without lights.

Make your own planet

A fun tool takes Google Streetviews and morphs them into planet-like objects:

Virtual Switzerland

Some incredible videos of Switzerland. My favorites are the realtime HD video hikes through Graubunden (St. Moritz, Berninapass, etc).

Amazing how just a click can bring me right back to the country!

10 minutes of gratitude

I think watching this would be a pretty good way to start each day; filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg explores gratitude, mindfulness, and the beauty of the world we live in and people we live with:

Could also be seen as the sentimental counterpart to Louis CK’s celebration of the modern world.

Oh wow oh wow oh wow

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW. – Mona Simpson

Future oriented

Projects that are future oriented, that despite their political difficulties can be completed only in some distant decade, are continuing reminders that there will be a future. – Carl Sagan

Gorgeous gadgets

These small Stirling engine kits are incredibly beautiful, inspiring, and pretty cheap.

And their website is lots of fun to mouse over.