When great video games make great art
Sometimes, moral lessons can be learned from blowing away zombies.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Most video games are happily escapist entertainment, but some are much more.
- One of these is The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic pandemic world.
- Through the innovative use of game play technology TLOU2, radically changes your perspective and elevates this game from entertainment to true art.
There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.
Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.
Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.
The sublime art of TLOU2
Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.
The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.
Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.
Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.
The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog
You've been warned
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.
When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.
The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.
The big plot twist
Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.
As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.
What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.
That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.
For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.
Before it fueled Woodstock and the Summer of Love, LSD was brought to America to make spying easier.
- The CIA's Project MK-Ultra was designed to investigate the potential of drugs for intelligence operations.
- LSD was thought to be a truth serum and was used on unwitting citizens.
- The full extent of the CIA's unethical human experiments may never be known.
LSD has a long, storied history in America. It is most famously associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, but modern medical science has brought it (and other psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin) into the mainstream as possible therapeutic agents for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
A slightly less well-known story is when the CIA tried to employ LSD as a tool in spycraft and tested its applications on unwitting Americans and Canadians.
The specter of international communism made America paranoid during the 1950s. Communist infiltration was thought to be lurking behind every corner, and the USSR was considered capable of just about anything in its goal of achieving worldwide dominance. It is within this milieu that one can understand why, when faced with instances of soldiers in the Korean War defecting to the North or denouncing war crimes that didn't happen, the U.S. government suddenly became convinced that the commies had developed some form of mind control.
The CIA thought it imperative that similar capacities be achieved by the U.S. If the Reds did not actually have that ability, all the better. So a project dubbed MK-Ultra was started in 1953 with the goal of finding a drug that could be used as a truth serum and a tool of mind control. Many drugs were tested, not just LSD, often on people without their knowledge or consent.
The head of the program, Sidney Gottlieb, thought LSD may be the wonder-drug he was looking for. So, he had the U.S. buy the entire global supply of LSD, at the time only produced by the Swiss company Sandoz, for a cool $240,000. The massive stockpile was immediately put to use.
The CIA set up front organizations to finance research of the drug at a number of universities, including Stanford and MIT, to see how typical test subjects would react to the drug in a clinical setting without making the CIA's interest in the drug known.
Less ethically and less voluntarily, some prisoners in the American penal system were given the drug daily for months on end. The CIA even drugged its own employees, hoping to learn what would happen if an intelligence asset was slipped a drug they knew nothing about. This resulted in at least one death.
And it only got stranger, less voluntary, and more illegal after that.
Operation Midnight Climax (yes, it was really called that)
In one of the more bizarre "experiments" during the project, the CIA had prostitutes in New York and San Francisco bring their clients back to a safehouse where they would be slipped LSD. After the conclusion of business, the prostitutes would ask questions of their clients, who would be tripping, in an attempt to determine how much LSD was required to get men talking. All of this was observed through a one-way glass by CIA operatives with no scientific backgrounds who drank martinis by the pitcher.
The use of the drug in interrogations also was investigated at safehouses in Europe and East Asia. Suspected foreign intelligence assets were given massive doses of LSD before interrogation to cause emotional trauma "at levels that can only be called torture," according to Raffi Khatchadourian. Some subjects were told that their bad trips would never end if they did not talk. Related tests were done to see if an LSD trip would make lies show up more clearly on a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive.
A similar program was going on inside the U.S. Army as well. The Edgewood Arsenal human experiments examined the use of several drugs, including LSD, in warfare and information gathering. As with the CIA, army officers drugged random soldiers to observe their reactions. While plans were drawn up to use the drug on captured Vietcong to aid in interrogations (which would have been a war crime), they were not enacted for reasons unknown.
Other ideas on how to use the powerful psychedelic included drugging foreign leaders the U.S. did not like before they had to give a speech or chair an important meeting. The hope was that the drug would cause erratic behavior, which would then lead to a decline in their popularity or to poor decision-making. Gottlieb even devised a plan to spray a radio station from which Fidel Castro was scheduled to give an address with aerosolized LSD in the hope of achieving similar ends. The plan was never carried out.
The spy who drugged me
In what may be one of the great understatements of the 20th century, the CIA concluded that LSD was too "unpredictable" in its results to be the single super-drug they sought. However, the CIA still thought LSD had its place in spycraft.
For his part, Gottlieb considered the project a failure and concluded that no possible combination of drugs or psychiatric interventions could accomplish the program's goals. He went on to work on other CIA projects and retired in 1973 after he destroyed most of the already spotty records of the program. In retirement, he helped lepers in India, raised goats, and constructed one of the first solar powered homes in the state of Virginia.
However, that was hardly the end of things. Gottlieb forgot to burn the financial records, and in the mid-1970s, the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate investigated the program, though the lack of data meant that very few of the people who were drugged without their consent were ever compensated, and a great deal about the program (and others like it) remain unknown.
Notable recorded and voluntary test subjects of MK-Ultra who were given LSD included the poet Alan Ginsburg, writer Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. All three would later tout the benefits of psychedelics and the broader drug culture in the years that followed their involvement with the program.
Their activities, as well as those of other LSD advocates in the 1960s, would undermine the very vision of American society that the CIA was trying to protect in the first place — using a tool the CIA itself provided. The irony of this was not lost on Beatle John Lennon, who mused, "We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget… They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom."
While the level of "freedom" LSD provides is debatable, the story of how the counterculture first got a taste of the stuff demonstrates even that freedom comes at a price.
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