Wow. Just wow…
Gutter Talk: Hot & Cool in the World of Comic Books
The medium we call comics is based on a simple idea: the idea of placing one picture after another to show the passage of time. Legendary comic artist Will Eisner defines comics as ‘sequential art’. The idea that art can be ‘joined up’ to create a narrative can be seen in practice throughout the ages and is therefore not new. Examples from history include Egyptian hieroglyphics, European stained glass windows, Greek wall frescoes, Japanese scrolls and prehistoric wall paintings. In the year 1066 the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230 foot long piece of sequential art, was completed. Reading from left to right, it illustrates the events of the Norman Conquest of England unfolding in deliberate, chronological order before its viewers. Today the formula for making sequential art remains the same, though Scott McCloud’s definition is more relevant to the type of comics we have come to know. In his book ‘Understanding Comics’ McCloud states that comics are:
“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”
(McCloud, 1993, page 9)
This definition ignores single-panel comics such as Larson’s ‘The Far Side’, and other visual mediums like animation, but includes the use of the ‘speech bubble’ as a critical element in a comic’s narrative. McCloud’s definition lends itself to the most common forms of comics: newspaper strips, magazine-format comic books and graphic novels.
So how do modern comics work? Each panel in a comic is contained within a border. Each panel is a self-contained piece of art, and a fragment of a narrative. When read in a sequence, the gap between each panel is ‘filled in’ by the reader’s imagination. It is the reader that ‘animates’ these still pictures, not the medium itself. This happens because the mind is designed to close gaps in our awareness. Gestalt psychologists call this process ‘closure’. The real power of comics, then, lies not in the characters involved, nor what they are saying, or even the stories themselves, nor any of the medium’s potential content, but in how the reader interprets each panel as part of a sequence. As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”.
One of the seminal media analyst’s best known concepts is that of a medium being either ‘hot’ or ‘cool’. In a broadcast on California’s CBC Television on June 22, 1965, McLuhan was asked to explain his concept:
“‘Cool’ is a slang term borrowed from the world of Jazz and popular music. The word ‘cool’ has a kind of mystical meaning that is not unlike the Hindu idea of detachment. The Hindu idea of detachment means complete involvement in an action and detachment in action. Whereas when people are merely involved in an action but not detached from the action, that’s ‘square’, or ‘hot’. Most people think of ‘cool’ as merely detached from action, but the word ‘cool’ as used in Jazz, and as I use it as sense for a medium, means a medium which uses all of you, but leaves you detached in the act of using you.”
(McLuhan, CBC.CA, 1965)
McLuhan exemplified hot media as: radio, print, photographs, movies and lectures; and cool media as: the telephone, speech, cartoons, TV and seminars. The comic book is another example of a cool medium, and to test McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe as a whole we will look at a comics series that typifies the medium; In the words of the great (but fictional) Professor Charles Xavier, “To me, my X-Men”.
For some, the X-Men comics are the epitomy of how all comics should be; fluid, exciting, intelligent, emotionally complex, relevant, and expressively drawn. Since their conception by Stan Lee in 1963, Marvel Comics X-Men have come very far indeed. Comparing the X-Men across the decades, panels of artwork today are richer with visual information. Comics in the early 1970s had a palette of just twelve colours. The reader had to use their mind’s eye to see the School for Gifted Youngsters that the series’ artists had in mind when drawing the series. Today, details such as old chalk-marks and lecture notes appear on the blackboard in Storm’s history classroom to give the reader a deeper sense that Mutant Academy is a real place. The characters’ facial expression are radically improved today, greater subtleties between Wolverine’s bad moods can now be conveyed, and fiery explosions are almost photo-realistic in terms of their adhering to physical law. There are now fewer gaps for the reader’s mind to fill in. Because of technological advancements and improvements in artistry, the X-Men and comic books as a whole have heated up. However, the images are still constrained within the borders of each frame. We must imagine what else is in the room when we see it from just one perspective, whereas in hotter media such as film the camera angles are generally wider, providing more information and therefore less detachment.
The panel makes up one essential part of the comic book’s construct. The second aspect is ‘The Gutter’ or the space between the panels. McCloud states that:
“Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there! Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality. If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar. And since our definition of comics hinges on the arrangement of elements then, in a very real sense, comics is closure!”
(McCloud, 1993, page 66-67)
Using the Gestalt definition of closure as “a principle of organization holding that there is an innate tendency to perceive incomplete objects as complete and to close or fill gaps” (TheFreeDictionary.com) and fusing it with McCloud’s concept of ‘the gutter’, in a McLuhanesque sense ‘the gutter’ becomes a very cool place indeed, completely devoid of content but for the reader’s own imaginings. There is actually an evolving art to reading or processing a comic as the guttering mechanisms become more and more sophisticated. In this way, comics could be said to be getting cooler. In some ways there’s a gutter happening whenever you turn the page too – a good example being that really ‘cool’ thing that happens when you turn the page in an action sequence (or somesuch) to a full or double page spread, sometimes with no words, and the reader really gets pulled in by the dramatic effect. Perhaps readers who are more brought up on squarer mediums, where they are more ‘spoon-fed’ with input have a harder time comprehending the narrative flow of certain comic books and so they are put off by the medium and never get to appreciate what it can offer. There are some types of comic book that require a pretty experienced reader, well versed in the ‘laws of the gutter’ and these are the coolest types of comics.
McLuhan’s thermometer is a tool for relativity, and works best when comparing multiple media. Luckily the X-Men do not appear solely in comics. They also appear in two animated television shows and have a highly successful movie franchise under their (spandex utility) belts. In a comic book, frames are viewed from up left, to bottom right. This requires active participation from the reader to help the narrative unfold. Panels can be ‘rewound’, ‘paused’ or skipped entirely. In cinema, frames on a film reel are shown to you in rapid succession and in the same place: the screen. All that the viewer has to do is sit back and let the medium wash over them. There is only a miniscule ‘gutter’ between the frames of a movie because the frame rate must be high enough to make still images on a movie reel appear to be moving fluidly. The closure between these frames is continuous, involuntary and imperceptible. The closure of frames in comics is reader dictated, involving, and necessary to the understanding of the book as a whole. This is what makes cinema hot, relative to comics’ cool.
Since VHS and, more recently, DVD became available; audiences can not only immerse themselves in a movie’s narrative from their home, but splash around a little too. Mystique and Wolverine’s fight scene cannot be rewound and played in slow motion in the cinema, but it is possible to do this at home. This makes home viewing a cooler immersive experience than cinema. The X-Men also have video games of their own, allowing a fully interactive, involving and entirely participatory immersion in the world of superheroes. In Activision’s 2004 game ‘X-Men Legends’ players can choose a team of their favourite heroes and work together to stop the psychotic Magneto. The game has its own scripted narrative, but allows real involvement that not even comic books can offer. Comics may be cool, but video games are cooler.
So what have we learned about the medium of comic books? We know that the medium consists purely of the panels in which content is placed, and spacing between the panels, which connects adjacent panels over space and time. We know now that although comics’ content is warming up as technology and craft allows, comics’ defining component, the ‘gutter’, must always remain an icy-cool permafrost desert of bleakness: Comic books would not exist without it. We have also learned that, in the Gestalt sense, comics can be seen as a configuration of elements so unified as a whole that a comic cannot be perceived by the reader as merely the sum of its parts, and that it is our own cognitive programming that turns a series of images into an involving narrative. We have learned that McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe still applies to varying media, but lacks a content analysis that might render it more relevant, especially with the dawn of video games as a highly prevalent medium. Hopefully though, the main lesson is that the true art of comics is not what we see on the page, but what we see in our mind’s eye.
CBC.CA. (1965). “Marshall Mcluhan: A Pop Philosopher.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-69-342-1818/life_society/mcluhan/clip4.
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
TheFreeDictionary.com. “Closure.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/closure.
Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
Carrier, D. (2000). The Aesthetics of Comics. Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Age. London, Routledge.
McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing Comics. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
McLuhan, M. and W. T. Gordon (2003). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Corte Madera, CA, Gingko Press.
Stearn, G. E., Ed. (1967). McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New York, The Dial Press, Inc.
Can Digital Games Create A Dependency?
Late in 2001, 21 year old Shawn Woolley shot himself to death in his apartment. He was an EverQuest addict, clocking up to twelve hours a day inside the game’s expansive online world. Shawn had epilepsy, and would often have seizures directly linked to the time spent staring at his brightly-lit computer screen, yet he would continue to play. He quit his job and he would ignore his family just to advance his character in the never-ending game.
An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “A psychologist diagnosed [Shawn] with depression and schizoid personality disorder, symptoms of which include a lack of desire for social relationships, little or no sex drive and a limited range of emotions in social settings.” However, these problems matter very little in a virtual world, a fact that inevitably caused Shawn to take shelter within its walls. He created a character that allowed him respite, causing his psychological issues to disintegrate each time he entered this ultimate escapist universe.
Shawn’s mother is now attempting to sue the game’s developers, claiming that Sony is directly responsible for his clinical addiction and eventual suicide. It is unknown as to the true reasons Shawn took his own life, however his mother suspects that a within-game event caused his breakdown:
“Elizabeth Woolley remembers when her son was betrayed by an EverQuest associate he had been adventuring with for six months. Shawn’s online brother-in-arms stole all the money from his character and refused to give it back. “He was so upset, he was in tears,” she said. “He was so depressed, and I was trying to say, ‘Shawn, it’s only a game.’ I said he couldn’t trust those people””
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, March 31st 2002)
But of course for Shawn it wasn’t only a game, it was his raison d’être. He devoted his life to play, and was in a state of immersion as deep as anyone might ever hope to achieve. Shawn was not the only one to have experienced such dependency on the online game, in fact EverQuest is referred to by certain of it’s 450,000 plus users as NeverRest or EverCrack, in reference to it’s perhaps inherently addictive qualities.
So how can a game be addictive? Digital gaming cannot be physiologically addictive in the way that opiates, caffeine or nicotine can be, because there is not a direct physical link to the gamer’s neurology. Although physical dependency to gaming cannot by its nature occur, games cannot claim to be entirely safe either:
“Psychological addictions are a dependency of the mind, and lead to psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addictions can theoretically form for any rewarding behaviour, or as a habitual means to avoid undesired activity, but typically they only do so to a clinical level in individuals who have emotional, social, or psychological dysfunctions, taking the place of normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained.”
(‘Addiction’, Wikipedia, 10 December 2005)
It is highly likely, then, that Shawn was indeed psychologically dependent on the game. But is his mother right to prosecute, given Shawn’s neurological issues? It is important to remember that although it is never the intention of a game developer to create an addicting piece of software, there is certainly the need to create a game that rewards repeat plays. This ensures that the game will be a commercial success. In the case of monthly subscription games like EverQuest it is commercially sensible that gamers remain interested for several months and pay as such. There is a great emphasis on hooking new players and keeping current players captivated. This is done by adding new and exciting content, allowing for alliances and clans to develop, and to design a never-ending game. Gamers can of course choose to exit play, but why should they when the game experience promises to get even better? A game’s success is based on how fun it is to play, not how addicting it is. The two are simply quite hard to distinguish.
There is a fundamental difference between gamers that are addicts and gamers that are just highly engaged.
The immense majority of gamers will not develop psychological addiction to digital play, but are certainly likely to experience a milder form of compulsion that keeps them playing. This is not because games are addictive, but because games can be incredibly fun. It is very hard, then, to distinguish between those that are highly engaged with a game: that is to say they are immersed; in the flow; and experiencing a reward-based benefit from continued play, and those that are psychologically addicted to a game: that is to say they are not just immersed but entrenched, not just in the flow but fully empathetic to their avatar; and whose greatest benefit of play is the gratification of their psychological dependency for yet more play.
So what happened to Shawn to get him in this state? Of course his schizophrenia played a large part in blurring the boundaries between his reality and his virtual world, but is that to say the casual gamer might never become so dangerously immersed? Could the magic circle ever wholly absorb a person? DeKoven (2002, p. 33) gives an account of Huizinga’s (1970) magic circle:
“[A] device to which we have access in order to keep the game going is the boundary that separates the game from everything else around it. Because there are boundaries, there are ways to get out of the game when you have to. Play is a voluntary act. You can’t play if you aren’t willing to. You can’t play if you feel you are obliged to. No game or toy can guarantee that it can make people play. You gotta be in the mood.”
Of course, for those that are addicted to gameplay, they are always in the mood. But then they aren’t really playing in the Huizinga sense. Gameplay must be voluntary, so for those that are playing purely to satisfy a compulsion are not really playing. Try telling that to the legions of EverCrack junkies. What are they really doing, if not playing? Salen and Zimmerman (2004, page 452) offer an account of Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) remediation theory that may help us understand the true mind state of the immersed player:
“Media operate according to a double logic. On one hand, media participate in… immediacy, the ability to authentically reproduce the world and create an alternative reality. At the same time, media also remind their audiences that they are constructed and artificial, a characteristic that Bolter and Grusin call hypermediacy… All media combine these two processes into what they term remediation, an experience of media in which immediacy and hypermediacy co-exist”
So the immersed player experiences the game in a state of remediation: aware that they are playing, yet suitably attached to a game not to disrupt the magic circle. These EverCrack junkies know they are playing, because they experience hypermediacy. An addicted player might experience a game purely as immediacy, where his life within the game unfolds as his reality. If this were true, then a game can never be accused of forcing an addiction, rather the onus is on the player to continually perceive gameplay in remediation. Players like Shawn that have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction are therefore more prone to psychological addiction. It can be suggested that the boundaries between reality and the game world suddenly dissolve when both the gamer’s propensity for addiction and the amount of gratification meet midway. That is not to say developers should hold back on making their games less rewarding, or better than reality, but perhaps that games should have better warnings for those who are less conscious of themselves as players.
Game ‘addiction’ is a relatively new thing. Before the invention of the home computer, and later the console, there really wasn’t much to be done on one’s own. Before interactivity there was just ‘activity’: reading; watching television or films; one-way communication with an entertainment medium. Then came the technology that changed ‘alone-time’ forever, in the process giving those anti-social types an excuse not to go outside and play with the other boys. The hardcore gamer was born, and with them new worries of digital addiction and stories of mind-numbing, brain-washing and the dumbing-down of the youth generation. Hardcore players are more likely to report their full engagement with a game, sometimes to the point of their realities shifting and their emotional drives realigning to the needs of their virtual representatives within a game.
What we see in the behaviours of hardcore gamers is not addiction, but engagement. Digital games are not addictive, although players may show characteristics of a dependency on them. Games are built around one core concept: ‘What would be fun for the player?’ As games get better and more realistic, it becomes easier to forget that we are really playing at all. The magic circle must be reinforced if it stands a chance of surviving intact against the next generation of ultra-immersive games. Gamers can only be protected from psychological addiction to these games if the notion that they are ‘just playing’ is constantly reinforced. A player’s double-consciousness should actually make play more fun, because the magic circle can remain unbroken. Developers would do well to remember that games are supposed to be fun, and the easier they make it to retain a lusory attitude, the more people will realise games are a safe medium after all. Developers are dependent on a good reception, and if they play things right, there won’t be any more blood on the keyboard.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
DeKoven, Bernie (2002). The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. 3rd edn. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club. Retrieved 11th November 2005 from http://www.deepfun.com/WPG.pdf
Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online (March 31st 2002). “Death of a Game Addict” Retrieved 13/12/05 from http://www.jsonline.com/news
Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Wikipedia (December 10th 2005) “Addiction” Retrieved 13/12/05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction
Poole, Steven (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade
Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001). The Ambiguity of Play. Boston: Harvard University Press
This is my third blog.
I have wanted a third blog for a long while now, since there have been ideas and images that I have felt I’d really like to share. The older blogs are rather too ‘young’ to continue in the same thread, as my mind has developed since they began. Feel free to check them out to get a better idea of where I am coming from.
So, WordPress eh?
Looking forward to a fresh start and a fresh set of capabilities. I’ll be trying to mobile blog, tweet, and feed my Last.fm music through to whoever lands here. Lets see how Web 2.0 I can make things whilst keeping the blog on the readable side of vibrant.
Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force GO!!!!