Friday, January 19, 2007

Addictions and the Four Seasons

In commenting that he 'resisted the addictive allure of games which had afflicted my children,' Yves stated a common prejudice against video games. Yes, it can be addictive, but I would like to argue that 'addiction' is not always a bad thing.

Human beings need structure, discipline and ritual and many 'addictions' are nothing more than acts that fulfil these needs. 'Addiction' often is perceived as a force that prompts uncontrollable, immoderate acts but that is not always the case. The morning ritual that mandates a cup of tea or coffee while reading a book or newspaper could be seen as an addiction, and indeed, many people find themselves rather put out or feeling that they have not really started the day properly if they have not been able to enjoy that brief ritual.

One can argue that there are differences between physical addictions and spiritual or emotional addictions, but personally I believe that all addictions are rooted in the soul. They become part of our personae, for better or worse.

There is nothing wrong with ritual or addictions per se. One can foster positive addictions instead of negative ones. One can be addicted to a 'morning constitutional' in the form of a pleasant ramble through the countryside or a brisk run, or one can be addicted to a 'morning rant', screaming at one's spouse. One is positive, and the other is negative.

As human nature craves routine, it is important to create positive rituals and addictions in order to prevent negative ones from slipping in to occupy that position in our lives. I believe that the definition of a habit as either positive or negative often is nothing more than subjective opinion.

People often say, 'There's nothing wrong with a drink before dinner.' Any one who follows a religion that forbids alcohol might categorise this instantly as a negative addition, without even scrutinising the situation in objective terms. In physiological terms, there probably is nothing harmful in an alcoholic drink before dinner, unless one has a medical condition that would be aversely affected by that. The ritual probably can be extremely beneficial for some, representing a point of transit between the frantic work day and a period of rest and relaxation. Often people will come home from work and tell their families, 'Just let me sit down and have a drink (before you talk to me/ bother me/call upon me.)' Many people need a ritual of transit, and appear to be incapable of combining their 'work personae' with their 'home personae'. A person who wields a great deal of authority at work may need to divest himself/herself of that dictatorial persona before interacting with his/her family. This may be a little schizophrenic, but sometimes it is the only way a person can balance the two roles he/she plays.

Interestingly enough, people who have been 'addicted' to drugs or alcohol often have been able to substitute a placebo for the drug/drink and by performing the ritual connected with the substance, have been able to avoid 'withdrawal symptoms' to some extent. I do believe that the ritual often is more important than the actual substance involved in any addiction. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. If a person believes that 'a drink before dinner' will help him/her relax, then it will be so. Even when a non-alcoholic drink is substituted for the alcoholic beverage, the ritual continues to exert its beneficial influence.

Another ritual that could be categorised as an 'addiction' but one that most people would consider positive is the ritual of prayer. Many people pray in the morning or at night before they go to bed. Often people perform a ritual of prayer or blessing before they eat. In Islam, Salat or ritual prayer is mandated at specific times of the day. Some people might criticise it as a 'mindless ritual' but that criticism is invalid for many reasons.

Ritual prayer provides punctuation to a person's daily activities. To pray upon rising in the morning is to give definition to the 'waking' world, as well as providing a positive mood with which to begin the day. A prayer of blessing and thanksgiving is an opportunity to reflect upon everything that is good in one's life. If one makes a prayer of supplication, on the other hand, that is a way in which to organise one's thoughts and energies, recognising the problems that one will be obliged to confront and trying to find a way to solve them.

Prayer before a meal usually is an opportunity, once again, to 'count one's blessings'. Prayer before sleep is a way in which to divest oneself of the actions and influences of the day, and to prepare to enter the world of slumber and repose.

Salat is more than that as it occurs throughout the day. It forces an individual to 'take a break', to create and enter a 'sacred space' by means of the prayer rug and to compose one's spirit by attempting to achieve nearness to God. Even if it is a 'mindless activity', and the formal prayers are recited without thought or meditation, one still can achieve nearness to God. Sometimes, it is the 'mindless' rituals that allow one most easily to achieve a higher consciousness.

I recall a discussion with a Roman Catholic priest as to the comparative merits of Islam and Catholicism. I mentioned Salat as one of the truly great aspects of Islam. He reminded me that set prayers were a part of the Roman Catholic ritual, once upon a time and that the Breviary included the Offices of the Day.

In the Roman Catholic liturgy, the day was divided into hours that corresponded to the ancient Roman divisions of time. Each section comprised three hours and were named Prime (6.00 a.m.), Terce (9.00 a.m.) Sext (midday), None (3.00 p.m.) Vespers (6.00 p.m.) and finally the night Vigils. The night vigils consisted of Matins and Lauds. Matins was subdivided into three nocturns to correspond with the three watches of the night (9.00 p.m., midnight and 3.00 a.m.). The office of Lauds was recited at dawn. Other Offices such as Compline were devised later, but the point here is that Christianity once practiced prayers much like Salat.

Like Islamic Salat, however, the actual time of each Office changed according to the season, being based on the movement of the Sun.

For most individuals who cultivate a habit of regular set prayer, in any religious tradition, non-fulfillment of this ritual brings with it a sense almost of anxiety, or at least a feeling that the day is incomplete. Some people actually attach negative effects to non-performance of religious rituals. In my opinion, however, this is simply counter-productive, but it does demonstrate the natural human instinct to regulate and discipline.

This does not make a case for the positive value of video games per se, however. I would submit that some games do have intrinsic positive value, while others are nothing more than shallow entertainment. Although entertainment is an important part of our lives, games can be teaching aids for young and old alike. A game like 'Grand Theft Auto' teaches wholly negative social behaviour and values. A game like 'Animal Crossing' or 'Harvest Moon' teaches positive social behaviour and offers an admirable philosophy of life.

It probably is no accident that some of the best games in terms of social philosophy are Japanese. The Japanese are very aggressive in teaching a positive social philosophy to children as well as adults. Harvest Moon is a farming simulation game. One begins the game in a small derelict farm. One must try to rebuild the farm, not only for oneself, but in order to improve the life of every one in the village.

The philosophy of Harvest Moon is a philosophy of community, of the links between all life forms, animal, plant, human and 'magical'. If one litters by throwing rubbish back into the sea, it will harm not only the fish in the water but also relationships with the other inhabitants of the village.

Remembering birthdays and attending festivals is one of the goals in Harvest Moon and a failure to interact with other individuals in the village will decrease ones chances of material success ultimately. Speaking to a specific person in a role-playing game often is the only way to acquire an important item or tool but it goes far beyond that in Harvest Moon games. In Harvest Moon, one must achieve a specific level of friendship with a person in order to obtain the item/tool/secret.

Although the guides I have written for a number of Harvest Moon games are as comprehensive as possible, players often email me for help with a specific problem. (Most of the time, the answer can be found in the guide, but that is neither here nor there.) One of the most common problems that players have is the inability to unlock an item or to experience a specific event. Although I make it as clear as possible that friendship is one of the PRIMARY goals in the introduction in each Harvest Moon game guide, players' problems usually are the result of ignoring that aspect of the game in favour of a 'get rich quick' strategy. They then find themselves in a situation where they have a fortune in gold but no way to spend it.

I submit that Harvest Moon games teach many important virtues to a player. For a start, these games require a certain amount of patience and determination. Unlike action games, where the end to the game can be experienced in a few hours, Harvest Moon games can last 255 years! One cannot win the friendship or heart of any individual immediately. Gifts must be given on a regular basis. Friendship or affection once won must be sustained. Ignore a friend or spouse and his/her heart level will decrease. Even when one manages to marry, if one does not continue to interact positively with husband or wife, one will not be able to have a child.

The idea that all life is connected is another valuable principle that is emphasised in Harvest Moon. In one Harvest Moon game, Magical Melody, one actually is encouraged to interact with wild creatures as well as livestock, pets and poultry. One can feed the wild creatures in order to establish basic relationships with them and this indeed is one of the subsidiary goals of the game.

All Harvest Moon games feature the Harvest Goddess. In many ways, she is
a traditional Fertility goddess, but she is an individual in her own right as well, and one can court and marry her, provided one can fulfil the rather arduous requirements.

In games where the Harvest Goddess must be rescued from transformation to stone, her rescue is a pre-requisite of any marriage. The Kappa, a traditional Japanese water spirit, can be found in some Harvest Moon games. Although his character is not an entirely positive one, befriending him can bring rewards. In other words, one of the primary tenets of Harvest Moon is that every creature has a purpose and it is important not to ignore any of them. Moreover, interacting with individuals or animals is a delicate business. Every individual has different likes and dislikes. One has to be conscious of these in giving gifts. Giving an item that the person or creature hates will not advance the relationship and in fact can harm it.

Another interesting aspect of Harvest Moon is the acknowledgement of Death as a natural phase of life. Although there are magical creatures in the games, the life one lives is fairly realistic. Hard labour results in fatigue and loss of energy. One must rest, eat or otherwise recover that energy. Severe storms can result in loss of crops and even buildings. Animals inside buildings that are destroyed by a storm will die. Even if livestock and poultry are protected from the elements and illness, time takes its toll and each animal has a natural life expectancy. When one names an animal, feeds it each day and interacts with it over the years, one becomes very attached to it. The death of livestock and poultry always is painful, even if these creatures only exist on a video screen. I believe that the way Harvest Moon games force players to experience the natural cycle of life and death is very positive. Moreover, animals will die but they will give birth as well. Harvest Moon allows players to experience the joy of a new birth as well as the sorrow of loss.

Can total immersion in another life be negative? I suppose one can argue that it could become more important than one's 'real' life, but I do not think that is a real danger. As I wrote in a previous post, it does allow a person to experience activities or a life that may not be possible in reality. Any one who has ridden a horse along the beach or up a mountain path in Harvest Moon will have experienced the thrill and joy of that. For some one who lives in a congested urban area or who is too poor to afford a holiday at the beach or mountains, Harvest Moon offers a brief 'virtual' chance to experience a brief but vivid holiday. For the physically disabled, a game like Harvest Moon can be a godsend.

If one cannot hope to have a farm in reality, one still can experience the satisfaction of planting, cultivating and watering crops and flowers. If one cannot hope to explore caves and mines in reality, one nonetheless can discover rare ores, gems and archaeological 'finds' in Harvest Moon. If one cannot fish in reality, one can catch over 50 varieties of fish in Harvest Moon and even 'catch' Pirate Treasure or a Fossil.

Harvest Moon is not solely a game that extols the virtues of honest toil, however. Some games include bi-annual horse races in which one can enter a horse or bet on the results. One game actually has a casino. For those who like an occasional 'flutter' but who haven't the means to take risks in real life, Harvest Moon does offer some opportunities to gamble (and win). There is humour as well in these games. Characters have their own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Accepting and actually befriending all sorts of people is another pre-requisite to success in these games.

Finally, one of the great joys of playing Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing is the change in seasons. In the coldest month of Winter in the real world, one may be able to experience a hot and glorious summer in Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. In the parched dry heat of summer, one can experience a magical snowfall in the game.

Moreover, this aspect of the game is very realistic. Crops and flowers are seasonal and will die when the season ends. Every season has its own crops and wild plants. The entire landscape is transformed as trees blossom or bear fruit or are covered with snow.

For players who live in climates where seasonal changes may be minimal, these games offer a wonderful opportunity to experience the incredible rhythm of the traditional four seasons. Even those of us who do live in places where Winter and Summer are clearly defined can experience something new in the 'realities' of what each season signifies to a farmer. One really learns to become 'attuned with Nature' in every Harvest Moon game. It can be a magical and rather profound experience.


Yves said...

Sorry if it sounded negative when I spoke about my children being "afflicted". There was no problem with it really and all children do it these days. I've felt the pull of these games - simple ones - myself.

But I am glad if my comment may have helped get you going on your latest excellent essay.

Freyashawk said...

Actually, I am glad you used those terms, because as you say, it allowed me to launch into a spirited defence of video games as a positive educational aid as well as an activity with therapeutic value. That is not to say that I would defend ALL games, or even all genres, but I do not think that Natsume, for example, has made a single game that is not valuable philosophically and educationally as well as being really good fun.

In fact, I think it was kind of you to read a post on a subject that may not have interested you much personally. As I always have been a bit of a 'crusader', however, I would like to think that at least one person might be persuaded to change his/her attitudes.