10.2. Pianists and Video Game Players

However disgusting the video game, you can be sure someone will remark that "at least it improves hand-eye coordination." I have no idea where this clich comes from. It is, at the very least, odd, given that any healthy childhood indeed, almost anything a child might naturally want to do (before his instincts have been deadened by technology) will lead toward proper hand-eye coordination. And, regarding the child glued to a video screen, why aren't we also concerned about leg coordination? Or about whole-body coordination?

But another issue is, for me, the decisive one. Physically coordinated performance becomes admirable in the fullest sense only to the degree it is caught up within a higher expressive purpose. Without this purpose, we have only a descent toward the automatic and reflexive in other words, toward the machine-like. By means of an artistic aim, on the other hand (think of the achievement of the gymnast, dancer, and instrumental musician) the physical skills are ennobled. They rise from the merely effective to the beautiful.

People often suggest that the manual skills gained from video games are not unlike those required by the piano player. The comparison can be revealing. Certainly muscular training and coordination are essential to the pianist. Even something rather like automatic and reflexive behavior is required. It would be impossible to play if the artist had to direct the movement of each finger consciously.

However, this, too, is a rather shallow clich . The pianist does in fact direct each movement consciously. That's what gives us the distinctive performance the musical interpretation and artistic expression we may either rave or groan about. While a kind of lower-level, muscular memory is very much at work, every motion of the fingers adapts, however subtly, to the artistic intention of the moment. This intention may be quite different from what it was in the last performance, depending on the setting, the audience, the performer's mood, and so on. So the level we like to think of as automatic is continually being disciplined and shaped from a higher, artistic level. This power of shaping constitutes the real mastery of the pianist.

The difference between the piano and the shoot-em-up video game is that, for the most part, the latter trains our reflexes to operate independently of our higher, more artistic sensibilities. The aim is merely to maximize a score or otherwise to win. Where the pianist is pursuing a sense of a coherent whole and is trying to produce an esthetically unified performance, the video game player is simply responding to one damned thing after another. Bodily grace and expressive content hardly figure into the picture as conscious goals although I suspect there are few if any imaginable activities where the truly superb performer is not required to develop some aspects of grace.

All this, by the way, bears on a science born of technology. Looking at a world whose nature is as far removed from mechanism as it could possibly be a world of streams and trees and clouds it seems we can do nothing better than imagine infinitesimal mechanisms behind the scenes while we ignore the higher, expressive gesturing that gives rise to, disciplines, and masters whatever else is going on. We can, of course, say that in our search for mechanisms we are "being rigorous and quantitative." And it's true that a concertgoer adopting such a stance might become wonderfully precise in measuring the pianist's intervals, pitches, tempos, and dynamic changes. But he would miss out badly if he mistook this disjointed data for the music.

That the world is full of music no one would deny no one, that is, who is not busy philosophizing or collecting data. Watch a sunset, sit beside a stream, or wander through a field and something in you will acknowledge the music whether you wish it or not. The mechanistic stance in science grew, not from an original conviction that nature is not an artist, but rather from the choice to attend to other things. The measurable parameters of nature's performance became the sole concern. It is not surprising that, after a few centuries of this single-minded choice, the philosophical conviction emerged that the music is some sort of human illusion or invention that nature is less an artist than a video game engineer, and that everything going on amounts to little more than one damned thing after another, without aesthetic unity, without feeling, without meaningful expression.

This conviction, however, is the true illusion, and I doubt whether those raised from childhood on video games however wondrous their hand-eye coordination have anywhere near as good a chance of escaping the illusion as do those whose games take them out into the natural world.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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