Sunday, April 7, 2013

Affordances and Atavism

There were two expat ex-Soviet Socialist Realist artists in the '90s who took it upon themselves to perform a quantitative analysis of painting in order to discern what people really like to look at. Now Socialist Realism was a strange beastie, in a way because it was so utterly naked in its intent. Only an utterly benighted populace would be held in thrall by images of Papa Joe looking messianic in front of a tractor-ploughed panorama or being nice to some comely children. Even so, for decades Socialist Realism reigned and was instrumentalised to forge the hearts and minds of the people into good Utopians by the same regime that held show-trials in which the fact that everyone knew they were bullshit but were too terrified to speak out so colossal was the tyranny to which they were enslaved was the most salient possible demonstration of that colossal tyranny.

The two artists were called Komar and Melamid and the details of their biographies are not as compelling in terms of the tub I am about to thump as the details of the findings of their quantitative analysis. So, what they did was to send out some kind of survey, commissioning the kind of company that does these things, in which they quizzed a bunch of different people from a bunch of different countries -a really wide variety of countries- about what kinds of pictures they like. They asked them about styles, colours, subject matter, realism, abstraction etc. Basically all the kinds of stuff you would talk about if you were talking about art to a person who "knew what they liked" but not necessarily a hyper-literate ironic wanker type - though, to be fair, these kinds of people were not excluded, they were just obliged to chuck their opinions in with all the riff-raff to be number-crunched by whatever methodology one uses in these cases. The aim of all this faffing about was to try to reach some conclusions about what kinds of visual stimuli people like and what they don't like. Then they used their Soviet training to whip up a couple of paintings for each of the surveyed countries as a demonstration of  (for example)  "America's favourite painting" and "America's least favourite painting".

George Washington was a cultural anomaly and localised so we shall overlook him

These paintings were, of course, execrable shit. Or, more accurately, we have been inculcated with sufficient cultural conditioning that we have a kind of allergic reaction to the paintings. It is as if their vulgarity offends our cultivated sensibilities. More interestingly, the imagery was extremely consistently selected across a wide variety of countries. This is unusual in that it is not unusual. Are we not floating in a sea of infinitely recessive meaning such that commonalities can only be contextual? Apparently not. Almost all the favourite paintings were (I think) about 44% blue landscapes depicting grasslands with bodies of water and some animals and trees with low-growing branches and forested areas and mountains. It didn't matter if the survey respondents were from Iceland or Colombia or Niger, they pretty much all, when taken collectively, expressed favour for that particular set of characteristics. Incidentally, the least favourites looked a bit Abstract Expressionist but I'm not really interested in them.

Now there's a theory that was foisted upon the world by a fellow called James Gibson in his 1979 paper called The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in which he introduces the idea of affordances. Affordances, in this context, are the opportunities for interaction an object or environment affords to a particular biological organism, especially those which have a positive or negative effect on that organism's evolutionary fitness and survival. So food, shelter, potential tools, other members of the same species, predators and prey are all potentially affordances. Gibson theorised that the perceptual apparatus and the nervous systems with which we are endowed has evolved very specifically to deal with the world in these terms. We are stimulated more by things which afford us opportunities to reproduce, like young, healthy symmetrical members of the appropriate sex, and those which threaten our bodies, like predatory animals, than things with a more limited survival value. However, much of the perceivable world can be divided up into affordances with more or less survival value.

It is not a coincidence that the Komar and Melamid "Favourite Paintings" appear like parts of upland Kenya our ancestors lived in during the Pleistocene and no coincidence they contain many of the qualities that would afford particularly good survival value to a Palaeolithic hominid.  There is a source of fresh water (for drinking and fishing in) and grassland, which has the capacity to support big grazing animals to prey upon, and the kinds of trees that can be climbed to escape predators and a variety of different ecosystems and altitudes to exploit (which will produce different foods in different seasons). These things are quality affordances and stimulate our senses for precisely that reason, because if they didn't we wouldn't be interested and we'd die. Our aesthetic predilections have been keeping us alive for long enough that it is unsurprising that they are so ubiquitous and deep-rooted. We all, to some extent, like experiencing scary things and sexy things and violence and intimacy because that is our birthright. Pornography and travel agent brochures and slasher movies and plush toys all become explicable manifestations of our innate biological nature.

When you roll up a character in D&D or whatever, you are defining a set of parameters for a specific set of possible interactions between the character and the world. One way that the character sheet and the ruleset associated with PC actions can be looked at is as a document that is prescriptive of the affordances present within the environment of the setting. I think of this in terms of Chekhov's Gun (As you know - If there is a gun seen incidentally in Act I of a Chekhov play it will definitely be used by the end of the play). You've rolled a character and that character is a cleric and that cleric can turn undead, therefore, somewhere in the setting there are undead thing to be turned. Your character can Find Secret Doors, therefore there are Secret Doors to be found. The whole character sheet is an atavistic anatomy lesson in what it was that Gygarneson put into its dungeons and what the expected play style was to be. This is oddball stuff if you think about it, the world was festooned with sufficient rods and polymorphing and petrification for your character to have a specifically evolved defense against it - " Um, yeah, my character is Hrungr Wraulkin, he's strong and not too bright but is, like, really good at resisting polymorphing and staves".

Another manifestation of looking at things in this way is that, as different characters possess diverse capacities for dealing with the world around them, and as circumstances and the perceiving party changes elements can become re-interpreted, shifting from being predators to prey or to allies, from threat to shelter, from ally to food. The setting becomes an ecology of opportunities wherein experience and material rewards take the place of replication as the engine of innovation.

The setting is also a reflection of the capacities the characters possess. There is an argument for catering to the characters the players create. It is no good creating a party of urbane bards and enchanters and dumping them in the bitterest tundra of blizzard elementals and frosty bone-fiends and random jokulhaups when they have capacities to deal rather more effectively with a different set of affordances (though that might make good survival horror). While the players have an important role in defining who the protagonists in this narrative are (and should be smart in the choices they make), the GM also has an important role in populating the world with the kind of opportunities that can be exploited by the characters that exist. It is probably stating the bleeding obvious but it is no fun playing a thief in a world where there are no pockets to pick, no traps to find, no walls to climb and no locks to pick. There is an extent to which the world can be seen as a kind of complementarily isomorphic reflection of the capacities with which the characters are endowed.

I am not trying to make the argument that the game is about what the system is about as much as I am making the argument that the system is about survival-important activities. However, much of what presents itself as survival-important in old-school D&D in particular is not mechanically defined. Especially at first level there is a maxim for survival of imperative importance which states, "Try not to roll your dice and don't let the GM roll dice. Ever". In most cases for beginning PCs dice rolled against you have some chance of killing you. This fact creates in players an incentive to exploit whatever elements are available, drilling down to that basal level of ecologically embedded perception to see all the affordances in the setting before the setting kills their characters. The fact that this kind of off -the-cuff improvised shenanigans is possible is one of the primary reason why rpgs are fun.

The final thing this brings to mind is that this game is about play-acting some semblance of primeval humanity in a hostile world. Not that many of us fear predation or any other survival threat any more. This game is violent because we are violent apes with violent imaginations and we miss the thrill of the dawn raid.


  1. Weird... I was only familiar with the word "affordances" via the psychology of design (The Design of Everyday Things,) but it works from that perspective, too.

    Also, I discovered I had read the names Komar and Melamid before. When you described the way they assembled these paintings, I thought of a similar project relating to music... and hey, there's their names on the web page. The most popular song is kind of bland, in my opinion, which is pretty much the same reaction you had to the paintings. The least popular song is hard to sit through in its entirety, but it's worth it, because it's actually extremely funny in places. Cowboy opera rap!

    There's probably a point to be made about bland RPG systems that attempt to be all things to all people.

    1. Our politicians are the result of a quantitative analysis of who we want to rule us and are trying to be all things to all people but generally kinda suck.

  2. Has someone done a tumblr or a site or something with all the paintings on it?

    1. Not as far as I know but probably. As much as I think the whole idea of what they did is cute the paintings are all very similar but with slight variations like the presence of historical personages or people working and are underwhelming.

  3. I'm throwing up my hands in protest at Bardic Tundra not being a good idea.
    All I could picture was a huddle of men in dark, puffy, weather-inappropriate clothing walking through a blizzard, pelted by snow, they all carry lutes before them, their floppy hats are askew. Amazing.
    The Yeti is not soothed by their music, an ice wyrm swallows the rhythm lutist, Bardic Tundra.

    1. Ha! That's the issue with you kids, abundance of imagination. I had the feeling as I was writing that the Bardic Tundra was good but I didn't know how good. All the inappropriate character/setting ideas that popped into my head suffered from the same ironical sense of being somehow good (e.g. Cannibal Halflings in the Archbaronial Court). It reminds me of a version of Patrick Stuart's Contrarian Knobend D&D but with inappropriate setting rather than attributes.

    2. What if we.. combined them?

      Project list:
      Terra Incognita
      Bardic Tundra
      Contrarian Knobend Conundrum: fuck-up doom portal

    3. I already spend too much time doing this and get in trouble for being at the keyboard when I could be doing other awesome shit.

      But hey, in good time.

      Terra Incognita project is called Uttermost South and there is also Antediluvian Earth which I shall info-dump one day and you are a bad influence Logan.

    4. Oh shit I forgot it was Uttermost South which is a much better name. Just screams "gon' be cannibalism and buggery".

  4. look those are jesus deer everyone

  5. yep.

    Thank you and Patrick for writing the things I should be writing instead of rotting my brain with horrible modules

    1. Masochism is a terrible affliction.