Saturday, October 2, 2010

On reader participation, pt. 2

Consider the seesaw.

To see the seesaw is to understand it. It's a lever. A lever is one of the simple machines. Kids love simple machines, and with good reason.

When it comes to seesaws, there's only one rule. If one end goes up, the other end goes down. This implies that one end might, by virtue of its weight, make immobilize the other end. It might also move the other end very quickly. Depending on what's on the other end, a lot of different things might happen. But the underlying principle -- the seesaw motion -- is unchanging, and its results are, in most applications, entirely predictable.

When I see a seesaw, or even think of one, I tend to nod my head in a certain rhythm, mirroring the see-saw. Up, down, see, saw. Or I might shift from one foot to the other, and back, and back, and back. Because I grasp the mechanism so well, I can get a surprising amount of pleasure from manipulating it, or mirroring it. This is another way of "nodding along."

When, as in the video below, a seesaw has surprising results, this can be very funny, very charming, very exciting. When a child figures out that a seesaw is also a catapult, the child is delighted. An adult may find new pleasure in operating a seesaw manually to entertain a child sitting on the other end -- and in experimenting with different levels of violence, different durations of elevation, to see what excites the child, what scares them a little, what thrills them. Now we are using a simple mechanic to create more complicated, less predictable results. This is more or less the basis of fun, of entertainment in every form and genre: you learn a simple mechanic or two, and then you apply it in a number of situations, often situations of increasing complexity.

Mario's jump, for example, is very simple. There are a few intuitive rules that govern his jump, though there are many possible jumps implied by those rules, available within that jump. As you progress through a Mario game, you perform more and more complicated jumps in more and more difficult scenarios. You learn more about the jump as a result. This is fun. It's like playing with a seesaw.

A character in a novel, or the novel's organizing principle if it is not a character (such as voice, genre, style, idea, etc.) does not have to be as simple as a seesaw, but it doesn't hurt if they have a principle within them that is. Ahab is a whale-hunting machine: he hunts Moby Dick. Superman saves people. Nathan Drake shoots them. And so on.

If a reader, a viewer, a listener, or a player can quickly discern an underlying mechanism in a character or an art, then they can participate in the art by predicting how that mechanism will be tested and transformed throughout the story. They can guess how the mechanism will be applied, what unexpected fruits it will yield. And then they are wrong, or they are right, or most often they are partly right and partly wrong, and this is fun for them. This brings meaning to the art, because the choices made within the art illuminate it, and the world, just as a kid who uses a seesaw to throw his friends around reveals himself as an asshole and also reveals some of the sad truths about the world. If we cannot perceive the underlying mechanism, then we cannot nod or play along, we feel alienated. We wonder, "What is the point?"


For the first post in this series, click here.

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