The Comfort Trap

A good way of understanding a concept is by looking at the way people use it in everyday conversations. Language embodies the accumulated wisdom of countless speakers who have expressed their understanding to others over long periods of time. By analysing the way we use the term ‘comfort zone’ we can better understand what we actually mean when we use it.

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We’re exploring Here!

If you had a rich malleable canvas that could flip rules on their heads and expose truths we take for granted, wouldn’t you use it? Jasper Schellekens writes about the games delving deep into some of our most challenging philosophical questions.

The famous Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius would have likely been a miserable mystic in modern mainstream education which demands that students sit and listen to teachers. But it’s not all bad. Technological advancements have brought us something Confucius could never have dreamed of: digital worlds. 

A digital world offers interaction within the boundaries of a created environment. It allows you to do things, even if the ‘thing’ amounts to little more than pressing a key. Research at the Institute of Digital Games (IDG) focuses on developing a deeper understanding of how these concepts can be used to teach through doing by looking at people interact with gameworlds, studying how games can impact them (Issue 24), and designing games that do exactly that. 

Doing it digital 

Two millennia later, John Dewey, one of the most prominent American scholars of the 20th century, proposed an educational reform that focused on learning through doing and reflection instead of the ‘factory model’ that was the norm. Dewey’s idea was embraced, and has become a pedagogical tool in many classrooms, now known as experiential learning.

Let’s not pretend that Confucius was thousands of years ahead of his time—after all, apprenticeships have always been an extremely common form of learning. But what if we were to transplant this method of experimentation, trial and error, into a digital world?

It would allow us to do so much! And we’re talking about more than figuring out how to plug in to Assassin’s Creed’s tesseract or getting the hang of swinging through New York City as Spiderman. While these are valuable skills you don’t want to ignore, what we’re really interested in here are virtual laboratories, space simulations, and interactive thought experiments.

Games make an ideal vehicle for experiential learning precisely because they provide a safe and relatively inexpensive digital world for students to learn from.

Think of the value of a flight simulator to train pilots. The IDG applied the same idea to create a virtual chemistry lab for the Envisage Project. They threw in the pedagogical power tools of fun and competition to create what’s known as serious games.

Serious games are at the heart of many of the IDG’s research projects. eCrisis uses games for social inclusion and teaching empathy. iLearn facilitates the learning process for children with dyslexia and Curio is developing a teaching toolkit to foster curiosity. However, the persuasive power of videogames stretches further than we might think.

In a videogame world, players take intentional actions based on the rules set by the creators. These ‘rules’ are also referred to as ‘game mechanisms’. Through these rules, and experiential learning, players can learn to think in a certain, often conventional, way.

Which brings us to HERE.

Prof. Stefano Gualeni is fond of using games to criticise conventions: in Necessary Evil a player takes on the role of an NPC (Non Player Character) monster, in Something Something Soup Something the definition of soup is questioned, while in HERE Gualeni breaks down what ‘here’ means in a digital world.

What’s Here?  

HERE sees the player explore the philosophical concept of ‘indexicality’, the idea that meanings depend on the context in which they occur. A fitting example is the extended index finger, which means different things depending on where it is placed and what movement it makes. Point one way or another to indicate direction, place over the lips to request silence, or shake it from side to side to deny or scold. 

The game explores the word ‘here’ in the digital world. It sheds light on how much we take for granted, and how a lot of concepts are not as straightforward as we think. 

HERE you play as ‘Wessel the Adventurer’, a cat of acute perception that is sent on a quest by a wizard to find magic symbols and open an enchanted cave. Playing on the tropes of role-playing games, the expectations of the adventurer are thus framed in a conventional manner, but not everything is as it seems.

By subverting players’ expectations of role-playing games, they will have the opportunity to discover what they have been (perhaps unwittingly) taught. They will be confronted with a puzzle involving the many versions of ‘here’ that can co-exist in a digital world. Among their prizes is Gualeni himself performing a philosophical rap. 

Explorable Explanations 

Experiential learning isn’t the only way to learn, but video games, with their interactivity and ability to manipulate the gameworld’s rules with ease, offer a ripe environment for it. The digital realm adds a very malleable layer of possibility for learning through doing and interacting with philosophical concepts. HERE is not alone in this approach. 

Words often fall short of the concepts they are trying to convey. How do you explain why people trust each other when there are so many opportunities to betray that trust? Telling people they have cognitive biases is not as effective as showing them acting on those biases.

Explorable Explanations is a collection of games curated by award-winning game developer Nicky Case that dig into these concepts through play. The Evolution of Trust is one of them, breaking down the complex psychological and social phenomena contributing to the seemingly simple concept of trust in society. Adventures in Cognitive Biases is able to show us how we are biased even when we don’t think we are. HERE delves into our understanding of language and the world around us, showing us (instead of telling us) that learning doesn’t have to be boring. Now go learn something and play HERE.   

To try the game yourself visit www.here.gua-le-ni.com

Paintings in motion

Vince Briffa’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2019 is OUTLAND. An audio-visual piece inspired by The Odyssey, a story intimately linked to the Maltese islands’ own folklore, the work unfurls over many layers.

On one level, it explores the lure of safety and the numbness that can bring—exhibited through Ulysses’ portrayal, who is caught in a bubble of his own making. ‘The plastic room replaces the island from the story, presenting a different interpretation,’ explains Briffa. Here, it is Ulysses’ own mind and thoughts that keep him trapped. 

The character of Calypso is also a reflection of the theme MALETH—port and safe haven. ‘She is both a lover and oppressor,’ Briffa says. ‘Calypso offers a haven for Ulysses during the seven years he spends harboured in her cave. But he is also her prisoner.’

Finally, there is fragmentation and distortion to create new from old. Penelope is Ulysses’ waiting wife, torn between longing for her husband’s safe return and an uncertainty she secretly harbours—is that even what she truly wants? Her presence in the work comes through the use of Emmanuel Mifsud’s poem Penelopi Tistenna (‘Penelope waits’). For Briffa, the Maltese language helps the story ‘take on a different life.’

The work’s duality is apparent. Images are juxtaposed against one another. One can observe two characters simultaneously, living their own truths and challenging each other. However, the conflict is not structured. ‘It’s a contemporary art piece, not film. There is no story. It’s more of a painting. I am, myself, a painter first,’ Briffa notes. 

So for those who find a narrative in this piece, know that it is uniquely yours. The question now is: will you share it?  

To watch and read more about OUTLAND visit www.vincebriffa.com 

Come ‘Here’!

A pointed index finger can mean many things. It can direct our attention to something, show us which way to go, or demand silence. It all depends on context—the situation in which it is used. This is what philosophers refer to as ‘indexicality’. And yes, you guessed it, the word ‘indexicality’ comes from the name of that particular finger.

Birdy from ‘Here’ game
Wessel the cat from ‘Here’ game

At the University of Malta’s Institute of Digital Games, Prof. Stefano Gualeni has been playing around with this concept. Featuring the voice acting talents of independent game developers Emily Short and Pippin Barr, Gualeni has created a video game called Here, designed for players to engage with (and get confused by) the concept of indexicality. 

Here’s gameplay poses the question of what it means when we say ‘here’ in a game world, and how many meanings of ‘here’ can exist side-by-side in a video game. It uses the trope from Japanese Role Playing Games of going on quests to retrieve bizarre items from classic locations. Spooky caves and castles are all part of the repertoire of locations that players can explore. But then, where do you go if ‘here’ is your instruction? What if ‘here’ isn’t where you think it is? What if you’re supposed to go upside down instead?   

To try the game yourself, visit www.here.gua-le-ni.com

Author: Cassi Camilleri

Transcendence through Play

Even though philosophers like Kant and Schiller of the aesthetic tradition never had the opportunity to troll some noobs in Call of Duty or slay a dragon in Skyrim, their views on the concept of play can be critical to our understanding of how the player relates to the game world. Dr Daniel Vella explores the work of aesthetic and existential philosophers. Words by Jasper Schellekens. Continue reading

The Philosophy of Creativity

In this age of specialisation, finding a niche is key to most people’s career progression. But it is not the only way. Cassi Camilleri sits down with philosopher poet Prof. Joe Friggieri to gain insight into his creative process.

Prof. Joe Friggieri

It was a very warm April day when I found myself sitting in front of Prof. Joe Friggieri. My heart was racing—I had just run up three flights of stairs for a rescheduled meeting after having missed our first earlier in the day. I had lost track of time while distributing magazines around campus. My eyes briefly scanned his library, wishing it was mine, then got right down to the business of asking questions.

Friggieri balances between two worlds: the academic and the creative. His series Nisġa tal-Ħsieb, the first history of philosophy in Maltese, is compulsory reading for philosophy students around the island. His collections of poetry and short stories have seen him win the National Literary Prize three times. I ask Friggieri if he separates his worlds in some way. ‘I can’t stop being a philosopher when I’m writing a short story or play. Readers and critics of my work have pointed that out in their reactions,’ he says. ‘I do not necessarily set out to make a philosophical point in my output as a poet, short-story writer, or playwright, but that kind of work can still raise philosophical issues.’

‘Dealing with matters of great human interest—such as love or the lack of it, happiness, joy and sorrow, the fragility of human relations, otherness, and so on—in a language that is markedly different from the one used in the philosophical analysis of such topics can still contribute to that analysis by creating or imagining situations that are close to the experiences of real human beings,’ Friggieri illustrates.

The urge to write

In reality, Friggieri is usually inspired by day-to-day moments, things normally overlooked in today’s loud and busy world. ‘In my literary works, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel; by people and events, by what I read about and by what I can remember,’ he says. It could be anything from a news item to a painting, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a piece of music, or a word overheard at a party. ‘All of that can trigger off an idea. Then, when I’m alone, I seek to elaborate the thought and to convey it to others by means of an image or series of images in a poem, or as part of the plot in a short story or play.’

While on the subject of inspiration and starting points, I wondered: how does Friggieri work? First, he swiftly explains his aversion to using computers for his writing. ‘I do all my writing the old-fashioned way,’ he notes. ‘I use pen and paper. I find it much easier to write that way than on my computer. It feels like my thoughts are taking shape literally as I push my pen from left to right across the page. I think with my pen, much in the same way that a concert pianist thinks with her fingers and a painter with her brush. It’s that kind of feeling that makes me want to go on writing.’ At this point, the subject of the Muse comes up. Is this something Friggieri believes in? ‘Waiting for the Muse to inspire you is just a poetic way of saying you need to have something to write about and you’re looking to find the right way of expressing it,’ Friggieri explains. ‘I write when I feel the urge or the need to write,’ he tells me with a smile.

The sheer volume of work Friggieri has built up over the years seems to imply that he writes daily. But in reality, his workflow is more akin to sprints than a marathon. He tells me deadlines are a good motivator for him to write, providing a tangible goal he can work towards. ‘My first two collections of short stories were commissioned as weekly contributions to local newspapers,’ Friggieri says. ‘That’s how ‘Ir-Ronnie’ was born.’ Ir-Ronnie is a man who finds himself overwhelmed by life’s pressures: family, work and everything in between. As he starts to lose touch with reality, ‘ordinary, everyday living becomes an ordeal for him, an obstacle race, a struggle for survival,’ says Friggieri. More recent works, such as his latest collections of short stories—Nismagħhom jgħidu and Il-Gżira l-Bajda u Stejjer oħra—also reflect this realism, exploring the complexity of interpersonal relations between different people from different walks of life. On the other hand, Ħrejjef għal Żmienna (Tales for Our Times) finds its roots in magical realism, which makes these stories a very different experience for his readers. The books have been well received, with translations into English, French, and German. Paul Xuereb, who worked on the English translation, described the tales as ‘drawing on the dream-world and waking reveries to suggest the ambiguity and often vaguely perceived reality of our lives.’

The Creative Philosopher

When it comes to talking about his other works and creativity, Friggieri often refers to language. When I asked him about his thoughts on creativity and whether he believed everyone to be ‘creative’, his response was positive. ‘As human beings, we are all, up to a point and in some way, creative,’ he says. A prime example is humanity’s use of language. ‘Think of the way we use language. Dictionaries normally tell you how many words they contain, but there’s no way you can count the number of sentences you can produce with those words. Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules. In a very real sense, every individual uses language creatively, in a way that is very much his or her own. I think the best way to understand what creativity is all about is to start from this very simple fact.’

Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules.

Is Friggieri creative when he writes his philosophical papers? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Each kind of writing has its own characteristic features. But creativity is involved in all of them.’ With philosophy, ‘you need more time,’ he notes. ‘You need to know what others have said about the subject, so it involves researching the topic before you get down to saying what you think about it. When it comes to writing a poem or play, you’re much freer to say what you like, much less constrained.’

In fact, Friggieri has five plays under his belt. Here is where the two worlds of academia and creative writing merge. ‘In three of my five full-length plays, I make use of historical characters (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Socrates) to highlight a number of  issues in ethics and aesthetics that are still very much alive today,’ says Friggieri. Taking L-Għanja taċ-Ċinju (Swansong) as an example, Friggieri explains how ‘Socrates defends himself against his accusers by raising the same kind of moral issues one finds in Plato’s Apology. The Michelangelo and Caravaggio plays, on the other hand, highlight important questions in aesthetics, such as the value of art, the relation between art and society, the presence of the artist in the work, the difference between good and bad art, and the mark of genius.’

Talking of theatre, Friggieri remembers how, before writing his first play, he had directed several performances. This was where he learnt the trade and what it meant to have a good production. ‘I have also had the good fortune of working with a group of dedicated actors from whom I learnt a lot. In my view, one should spend some time working in theatre before starting to write for it.’

As time was pressing, and the sun was starting to move away from its opportune place in the window, I asked Friggieri one last question, the one I had been obviously itching to ask. What advice does he have for writers? The answer I got was one I should have expected. ‘Budding writers should write. Then they should show their work to established practitioners in the field. The first attempts are always awkward. As time goes by, one learns to be less explicit and more controlled, to use images to express one’s thoughts where poetry is concerned, to develop an ear for dialogue if one is writing a play, to produce well-rounded characters in a novel, construct interesting plots, and so on. All this takes time, but it will be worth the effort in the end.’ And with that, we had the perfect closing.   

Author: Cassi Camilleri

 

Confrontation caricaturised

My work centres on the co-existence of dualities. It treads blurred borders and investigates uncertain divides between opposing poles. It synthesises extremities and acts as a seam that binds together disparate realities. 
Uncertain of its own actuality, it questions its own being.
Artist statement

Prof. Vince Briffa peels back the layers of his latest works to reveal his thoughts on duality, confrontation and caricaturisation and how he translates them into art.

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