Monday, July 2, 2012

2 Dimensions Is Just Better

If you take all of your opinions from popular trends, then you probably think this

Is much better than this


But you're wrong. Whether it's a matter of taste or not I intend to challenge the modern age's obsessive focus on 3d games' graphics and super HD television shows. Please note that there are plenty of great 3D games and CGI movies which have awesome narratives, and I'm not commenting on that aspect of art. I'm just talking visuals.

The first and most apparent advantage that two-dimensional media has over its 3D counterpart is cost and ease of use. It's a simple matter of economics. 3D costs a lot more money even if we only consider the amount of time it takes to produce. This is why so many indie games are set in two-dimensional space. Additionally, 2D will age better than 3D 100% of the time. A prime example is Star Wars. The special effects used in episodes IV-VI were revolutionary. No one had done anything close to looking that good before. Despite how many aspects still look great today, not everything aged as well as rose colored glasses make some people think.

A great scene to be sure, but in terms of pure special effects it's nowhere close to what they can do today. And frankly, it can only get better. This is not to say that using three dimensions or CGI is an inherently bad thing for media, but 3D by its nature will always age worse than its 2D counterparts. Note there are some rare exceptions such as The legend of Zelda: The Windwaker whose 3D is essentially popup 2D, and in my opinion still holds up close to 10 years later.

The fact is that so much more can be done with cartoons. It is trivial to add whatever fantastic situation you would like and 2D provides for a more fully featured method of human expression.

But the practical nature of two dimensions is superseded by an even more important philosophical argument. Our focus on the growth of more realistic graphics, particularly in video games, represents a focus on imitation rather than beauty or inspiration. This, Plato tells us, is the most base form of aesthetics and not something we should desire. Plato believed there was an unchanging world of forms and that all the things you see around you are merely shadows of their perfect Form. Ergo, painting something just to reproduce its image moves us even further from understanding its true form. Realism in graphics means that visual representations of characters and scenery can never move beyond this idea of a copy of a copy. This even works in relation to obviously unrealistic concepts in games and movies which we expect to at least look like they actually exist.

In its ideal use, visual art should be seen in the same way as any other art. It should lift us up to a higher good. Plato literally believed in the existence of the form of Beauty and Good, and as a Catholic, I identify these transcendentals with God. Either way, 2 dimensional cartoons and video games are more suited to this purpose than their 3D counterparts. If not inherently, than at least in a practical sense.

Practically, it is obvious that our cultural mindset is now deadset on pushing 3D graphics toward simplistic realism.

Realism defined as "lots of brown and gray"

2D is now incapable of competing on the "realistic" front, so it is implicitly understood that the decision to make a game in two dimensions is either for cost reasons or to make a statement. Or both. Take the game Limbo:

Also known as "Proof that silhouettes are always creepy"

Even if you've never played this game before, just this screenshot gives you an immediate sense of what the game is all about. It's simplistic art style means that you don't immediately judge it for how well the graphics simply represent what they are. You judge it based on the immediate feeling it gives you, for better or for worse. This game is not memorable for it's story (virtually none), gameplay and controls (not the best), or multiplayer. It is memorable and critically acclaimed for its atmosphere. And that atmosphere would be difficult at best to pull off in a three-dimensional game, much less maintain that atmosphere a year or two after its release. Even if this particular game doesn't lift you up to God, it does expect you to move up and out of the "shoot nazi, repeat" mindset. I won't say it's impossible for a 3D game or CGI laden movie to be expressive and not just imitative (Shadow of the Colossus for example). However, it is extremely rare to find examples of well done visual art not done with 2D in video games. (Remember there is a distinction I'm making between "looks nice" and "well done")

tl;dr: 2D video games and cartoons are a better mechanism for producing visual artistic value than 3D and CGI. And even if you're looking at a game which is not intended to have any artistic value (e.g. Sonic on the Genesis) 2D still provides a more convenient medium to create imaginative and colourful worlds because "realism" is not expected.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Little Pony and Masculinity/Femininity

There is a crisis of manhood in the modern world insofar as we seem to lack the same caliber of man we used to have. Today I wanted to address the issues raised in a recent PBS video on whether bronies are redefining masculinity. Skip to 1:36 for the money part if you're already familiar with the phenomenon of bronies.

It is easy to see that, yes, bronies are unambiguously challenging the cultural definition of manhood. Boys like lots of manly action sequences and girls like dresses, ponies, and rainbows. I think it is safe to say that most people agree it is not necessary to manhood or womanhood that a strict set of interests is adhered to. I don't have to enjoy bland First Person Shooters about brown and gray space marines to be manly, nor must a woman be a lover of shopping or cooking to be womanly.

You need to be at least half this buff to even be considered a male
However, this does not mean that there is no distinction between man and woman beyond their physical characteristics. There is a middle ground between the more conservative (I'm not speaking politically) view of having to shoehorn yourself into the same template as every other member of your gender and the more liberal viewpoint of tossing out any real difference between the sexes. I believe the difference can be illustrated with an example brought up by the PBS video above. Women wearing pants.

The idea that it is acceptable for women to wear pants is fairly ubiquitous in modern society. We do not equate it with more socially unacceptable actions like cross-dressing. As pants do not inherently fail to protect a woman's modesty nor are they physically incapable of being properly worn by women, it is simply a matter of subjective taste. Forgive me for simply reading Wikipedia as a source for this, but women began wearing pants as convenient work wear while their husbands were away during World War II. Even if they hadn't had a practical reason for doing so, a women who was able to deal with the odd looks she might receive would not have caused a great deal of scandal. It is this that serves as a parallel for men who watch My Little Pony. Being a Brony only challenges the established gender differences insofar as it is simply abnormal for a man to watch these kinds of shows. It does not inherently challenge the idea of masculinity's existence even if many who watch the show might do so themselves.

This is unlike the idea of cross-dressing. It is through the act of dressing solely to look like the opposite sex that the idea of masculinity and femininity is challenged. Excluding underwear, any individual piece of clothing worn by a transvestite can be seen as merely abnormal taste. It is together that the cross-dresser removes any sense of true gender difference. They are not proclaiming a legitimate difference in preference to the world so much as visibly throwing off their own gender and its legitimate roles in society. Where My Little Pony comes in is that people who do the former kind of gender challenge (women wearing pants) are also more likely to do the latter kind of challenging. Men who watch MLP are not challenging masculinity by watching the show, but some men who watch the show are also challenging masculinity.

Catholic Masculinity

The most recent trend in masculinity is twofold. You have some who advocate the "no difference at all between men and women" point of view who become men that try to be feminine. On the other hand there is a move to an even more "masculine" lifestyle as some feminists attempt to become masculine. This is wear the steroid using space marine video games come from. But what does "being a man" truly mean?

Being a man is to be reflective of God the Father to others. There is a reason God wished us to call Him by that title, and why we also refer to priests as "Father." A man should take on the role of leader in what he does. Not in the way that is feared (sometimes for good reason) by modern sensibility, but as a total gift of self to another, be it his family if he is married or his parish if he is a priest. A man is not the dictator of his household or parish, he is a leader. And as leader, he is to love in the way that has been set in front of him by God.

"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it." (Ephesians 5:25)
The ultimate expression of Love is also the ultimate expression of manhood

Man's position in the total self-gift between the spouses can be seen as leader through how he has been equipped for the task. Much can be seen of it in the sexual act. Man is the giver and woman is the receiver in more ways than the physical. Though both genders have a sexual urge, it is man that has a much higher propensity to direct the urge in a disordered manner. Women truly have much more to fear from men than vice versa in sexual matters, but a true man from the Catholic perspective learns from that sexual urge towards another individual and allows it to grow into total love for her. Furthermore, the man knowing his ability to harm her, he protects woman through preserving her modesty before marriage (as he should with all women) and he additionally protects her in corporeal matters afterward.

With this general picture (Thank you JPII) in mind, is MLP a positive, negative or neutral force in pursuit of this ideal? I believe it to be neutral. The morals of each episode are always about friendship and Philia (love of friends) and do not advocate behavior which is proper to only one sex. While we should be wary of the one who says we cannot assign differences to the genders, the issue of masculinity and femininity being cast aside in the modern world is separate from the man who watches MLP. First of all because there are many good reasons to watch the show, and secondly because My Little Pony has not taken a side on the issue. Despite the unfortunate prevalence of relativism in places it shouldn't be, MLP is one of the cases of an actual subjective preference. It would be wrong to accuse a brony of challenging true masculinity even if he challenges the false masculine image we are brought up with.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Conservatism

I am not a conservative. "Conservative" is one of the two most used political labels in the United States. If you are a liberal, you probably think of a conservative like this:

If you're a conservative, your picture is probably more along the lines of this:

But do either of these actually give an accurate depiction? Well no, because broad generalizations are just that, broad. But the Ronald Reagan quote does effectively outline what I believe to be actual conservatism. This is not to say that liberal people are doing something other than what they believe to be morally right, but conservatism is more than just a set of common political beliefs. Based on the people I've met who I would consider "real" conservatives, a conservative has a system of values most often based around the merits of hard work and traditional family values beyond those of the politically contentious issues of the day. I feel no nostalgia or pull towards tradition. Yes, I like authenticity a lot hence my recent hobby of collecting old video game consoles and cartridges, but that's as conservative as I get. For example, I am opposed to gay marriage, but I am opposed based on the ethical presuppositions that being Catholic entails. Conservatives, for better or for worse, are more likely to base their opposition on the same amount of emotional motivation that the liberal side of the issue does.

This is why I refuse to take on the label of conservative. I'm not a conservative person. Firstly, because I don't have much of an opinion on anything economic because I feel too ignorant to take a stand on anything related to those issues. Secondly, I don't harken back to older, simpler times nor try to adapt those values to the modern day. I used to be a very socially liberal person because of my "live and let live" attitude, and that perspective hasn't changed, only my ethical presuppositions have.

Catholics are currently in the middle of a culture war which causes a large amount of focus on the other. It's understandable that war, even an ideological one, must simplify the issues involved and simplify the perception of an opponent. As a result, many orthodox Catholics (though certainly not all) have built up a picture of *Liberal*. Liberal has a predilection for x, a belief in y, and does z. It's a simple, clean picture which means the only rule is stay far away from anything even resembling x, y, or z because having even one trait which might be construed as liberal must imply you are the enemy. You must be on one side or the other, and you must accept the whole package to be a *conservative* or a *liberal*. Trouble is, this isn't a true dichotomy. 200 years ago in America virtually all of us would be liberal. 2000 years ago in Rome many of us would be conservative again. We all have individual beliefs and values that arise from our individual circumstances. It doesn't mean that everyone is right, but it means that you can't cast someone off as irrelevant because they are different from you.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Catholic Brony

I'm admitting this now: I am a fan of cartoons. Cartoons which may or may not be intended for young children (no this isn't sarcastic). From my early days I enjoyed the likes of the Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab, Samurai Jack, and many other now classics. I still continue to enjoy these shows as well as throwing some new ones into the mix. Most recently: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic airing on the Hub and Adventure Time airing on Cartoon Network. Now first off:

Now to my point...

It kind of sucks being Catholic and liking these kinds of shows. First I get the standard accusations of being effeminate from the more conservative members of my faith. And here I mean conservative as opposed to orthodox. Worse, Catholics can't very well find solace or empathy in the communities for these kinds of shows. The vast majority of the online community for MLP or AT is fairly liberal college students and young adults. I am an outsider to virtually all people I could talk to about these shows. Case in point: In an episode of Adventure Time, which I'm not going to explain everything about, the character Marceline is singing a song which might or might not be interpreted as having a lesbian bent. This being the internet, people took it and ran with it. Very far if you're brave enough to google image it. (I wouldn't)

Likewise, My Little Pony is show about 6 ponies discovering, aptly, the magic of friendship. These characters are all female, as is about 80% of the population of Equestria where they live. Once again this has led to many things which cannot be unseen.

While this is all fine and dandy for those who take no issue for it, as a Catholic it is a distinct reminder of my outsider status. I'd obviously never value a TV show over my faith, but it's never nice to feel left out. Furthermore, I don't have the knee-jerk, disgusted reaction to common immoral situations portrayed in modern media. People sin, some people have no problem with it, and we're all human beings. However, thanks to the culture wars of the modern day I am disliked by most people on both sides. Like I said, I'm adverse to the throw-out-your-TV mentality, but that doesn't mean I'm going to throw out my opposition to gay marriage just to fit in with the people I deal with the most.

And this can be applied to a lesser extent to my entire experience on the internet. I had depression (clinical, it was not a self-diagnoses) for several years and so had no real social life to speak of prior to my college life. I grew up on the internet. Yeah, I could restrict myself to the Catholic sphere of the web, but a lot of the people on those sites seem like fundamentalists, or worse, National Catholic Reporter readers.

I can't help that my temperament tends to coincide with 13-34 year old males who enjoy MLP; I just wish that I didn't seem to be the only social conservative who does.

I also take issue with calling myself conservative. 1. because I hate labels and 2. because I think there's a distinction to be made between the political positions labeled conservative and actually being a conservative. But that's for my next post.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Our World: The Joker Wins

The Dark Knight was the major sequel to Batman Begins. Aside from being a box office hit and my personal favorite of the two films, it also unintentionally (i.e. I don't actually think the writers had these ideas in mind) raises the most important ethical questions of the postmodern world. With the Batman already established as the "dark knight" of Gotham city, he represents the reasonless a la carte deontology that so many in our world believe in. As his foil we are presented with the Joker, a villain whose only goal is to "just DO things."

For me, the most memorable moment of the film is in the hospital when he lays out his thought or lack thereof:

"I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if a caught it. I just DO things. I'm just the wrench in the gears. I hate plans ... So when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know I'm telling the truth ... I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself ... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!"

But the closest equivalent we have from Batman is essentially, "This city just showed you that it's full of people ready to believe in good." The Batman spends a long time professing the goodness of good, but never defines his terms. Ordinarily, there is a general standard the vast majority of people hold to that is sufficient for superheroes to adhere to and defend. Lex Luther wants to overthrow life and liberty, Superman wants to stop this, and no one questions who's on the right side. The problem that Bruce Wayne runs into in the Dark Knight is that the Joker is not presenting himself as evil. Most villains have no reservations as to the moral character of their actions, but the Joker is questioning the existence of good itself. He puts himself beyond good and evil (This is me using extremely subtle foreshadowing). This characterizes the natural end of the post-enlightenment discussion on ethics as laid out by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. Gordon and Harvey Dent both work for justice deliberately within the established legal system. Batman is said to have only one rule: He will not kill anyone. The Joker only asks why. From a Catholic perspective we can answer these questions from a teleological perspective, but the modern and postmodern world has lost the ability to see this.

More importantly, the postmodern man has no way to respond to the Joker's "argument." Because they have lost the idea of teleology and reduce morality to a question of pure rationality, such as Kant's categorical imperative, modern attempts to define right and wrong actually become arbitrary likes and dislikes. MacIntyre refers to this as emotivism. Morality coming only from within ourselves based on emotional responses to actions. Try as he might, the postmodern man cannot say any particular action is good or bad, and if he does he is only expressing that the actions make him feel positive or negative emotions. It is the Joker who recognizes the Nietzchien end of the destruction of classical ethics. Walking away from The Dark Knight should leave you unsatisfied. (intellectually, that is) Yes, we know the Joker is evil and it was right for Batman to stop him, but the Batman the movie portrays is philosophically weak.
Moral arguments must always come down to some unprovable presupposition. For Batman, it is simply that good is good because it is good (I am not claiming this is circular). If we are to believe MacIntyre, we can test these presuppositions by seeing how they rationally handle different moral situations. As Catholics, we say that the teleological approach is best, but that is for a different post. Batman's approach only comes off as arbitrary when broken down. His presuppositions don't allow us to extrapolate any universal moral oughts. Even though Batman wins and "evil" is punished, we are left wondering if Batman wins for the sake of the Good or for the sake of arbitrary control. As Catholics, we are left with a way out of the real slippery slope toward the ethic-less Joker, but what of the postmodern world that has lost the ideas of teleology?
Realistically, I believe that natural law is written on the hearts of men and that we will never see a truly morally bankrupt society, but I can't help but be bothered by the implications of relativistic ethics. It's not so much that people hold ideas contrary to mine; it's that they either won't admit it or they are internally consistent. I love The Dark Knight because I think it's the closest we'll get to a simple demonstration of the conflict presented by After Virtue.

Also I just realized in writing this post that "Dark Knight" is a pun. I'm quick on the uptake.