Saturday, November 14, 2009

Versus Series #0: A bad tail and a good leg

People think in metaphors, and to understand what someone really thinks, you must know the metaphor they are using when they think of something.  The trouble is, most of the time people don't realize they are thinking in metaphorical terms--they think they are just stating a point of fact.

To those of us who have had debates over whether the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is either a shining example of the genius of man or if it is some kind of sick joke foisted upon us by a cruel god, reconciling opinions may seem like an intractable problem.  Maybe it is to a point, but understanding the point of view of your friend/enemy goes along way towards an agreement of some sort. 

I've been thinking about the parable about the blind men and the elephant a lot recently.  Three blind men feel different parts of an elephant and come to different conclusions: the one feeling the tail says it's a rope, the one feeling the leg says it's a tree, and the one feeling the trunk says it's a snake.  They're all wrong, of course, but that doesn't mean they have to disagree.  The one feeling the legs could go over to the one by the trunk and agree that from this side, it is a snake--so it must be a snake hanging from a tree, they agree.  Then they find that the one by the tail is also telling the truth when he said it's a rope.  At this point, they're still all wrong, but they're closer than ever to the true nature of the beast.

In matters of opinion, our blindness is much more subtle and our culture has trained us to be more resolute.  A movie is either "bad" or "good."  A piece of music is either "inspired" or "played out."  As long as others agree with you, the charade plays on without a hitch; when someone says that this "good" movie is a "bad movie" (in the face of your expert assessment, no less), the only correct response is, "You are insane."  For only insane people can look at reality and see something different.

And it's true.  If I say this thing is round and you say it's square, one of us is either lying or has some kind of mental disability (and my money would be on you).  The question is, how can we jibe the notion that completely rational non-insane persons can disagree with each other over questions of taste?  What makes taste different than the perception of shapes?

The blind men got a head start by stating how they were perceiving the elephant.  Suppose each of the blind men was put in the same position, but this time each was told that what they were feeling was an elephant.  The one at the tail would stroke the tail and say to himself, "Ah, this is what an elephant is--it feels like a rope."  Now imagine that they went to another elephant, but this time, their positions got confused: the one who was at the tail is now stroking a leg.  What is he thinking now?  "There is something wrong with this elephant--it's enormous, rigid--it must have some sort of disease."  If the blind men were told that the first elephant was a particularly fine example of an elephant, they would conclude that the second elephant is a particularly poor example--even if it happened to be the same elephant.

This is the introduction to my "versus" series that I will be adding to on a regular basis.  These posts will examine different metaphors that people apply to games and what we can learn from both the metaphors and the differences and similarities between them.  In other words, we will look at the elephant's tail and compare it to the elephant's leg to find out what each can tell us about the elephant.  Consequently, we will find out even more about ourselves and how to tell the difference between a "bad tail" and a "good set of legs."

My first post in the "versus" series will be "Games vs. Toys," where we will look at video games as games, and then as toys, and then try to figure what difference it makes to think of them as one or the other.  

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