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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Trip: Excellence vs. Accessibility

On the long trip to Detroit, I handed my father a CD to put in the player. It was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one of the greatest works of music ever composed. Beethoven liked to make use of strong contrasts in dynamics for dramatic effect, and so I found myself pressing my left ear to the speaker in order to hear anything at all. I did my best under the circumstances to appreciate the hour-long masterwork, as my family chatted loudly amongst themselves and waited for the whole thing to finish already. It is a piece of music which aims to do absolutely everything in one work, going so far as including an opera in the final movement. Even in that awful setting, I gained a new level of appreciation for the music as I listened. But why should any of that interest my family? They just got a kick out of hearing "Ode to Joy" toward the end; otherwise, it had no appeal for them.

It reached its satisfying conclusion, I took the disc back, and my father turned on the radio. What I heard was a short song which sounded just like any other, with phoney romantic lyrics market-tested to appeal to as large a target audience as possible, with the most obvious harmonic progression you could think of, but a slightly catchy simplistic tune. Miriam and Dena asked my father to raise the volume because they'd heard this song before. He did so, and why not?- the volume was a constant all the way through.

To summarize: Two hundred years ago, there was music which aimed to do everything. Now, there is music which aims to do nothing. Now that's progress.

But I wondered if I shouldn't lose sight of what audience the music was dealing with. My family weren't the sort of audience who cared enough about music to appreciate greatness, but they were looking for some mild entertainment they could use to keep themselves occupied for a few minutes at a time, and if it was soft and inobtrusive enough to allow them to chat on top of it, so much the better. They wanted to not have to get too involved, they wanted simple tunes diluted with simple lyrics. The music on the radio isn't an unwanted plague, it's serving a popular demand.

I can relate to wanting simplification, wanting more accessibility. When we went to Lincoln Memorial, I had a hard time figuring out what the point was, faced with historical context and the specific wording of a historic speech and an image of a historical figure. That's because I just don't care for history, and am unwilling to put in the effort I'd need to understand it.

But in Boston, we heard a small part of a tour about history which I actually enjoyed. Sillily, the tour guide was an actor dressed in old-fashioned clothes. He wasn't a historian at all, just a good storyteller, expressing historical trivia as compelling tales of ordinary people. It wasn't particularly informative, considering that I don't remember anything he said, but I had a very good few minutes listening to each story. I didn't want a history lesson of the sort that only appeals to enthusiasts, because I didn't have the patience nor the interest for history. But what's wrong with enjoying a little bit of simplified history on my level?

It occurred to me that if history were told (accurately, of course) through dramatic movies and exploration games, then most everyone, myself included, would love learning history.

After the Shabbat we spent in Detroit, one of my newly-bar-mitzvahed-cousins showed Benjy and me a flight simulator he liked: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. He had a joystick, and I waited eagerly to see him take off and have some fun flying. It took him ten minutes just to get off the ground, because this simulator was so obsessed with realism that he needed to go through dozens of communications with the tower in preparation, and needed to fiddle with many little doohickeys in the cockpit to be able to take off. When he did take off (using the joystick) and had the plane on its way, he put the joystick down and put the plane on auto-pilot. Apparently, this game was designed entirely for realism -not fun. There was no reward for any of the actions the player took, no excitement, no danger. It was so mundane. I begged him to crash the plane, so that we could at least see an explosion. But he was too responsible a virtual pilot. Yawn.

What I would want to see in a flight game is the experience of flying distilled to the raw thrill of soaring around. You should be able to use that joystick to swing around wildly, thrown off course by every gust of wind, and feel like you are the plane (or preferably a bird) flying free. That's an accessible feeling, a universal feeling. Maybe it wouldn't last for more than a minute or two, but that short time would be such wonderful wish fulfillment.

In Illinois, my grandfather took us out on his boat. He's got a really nice boat, with a refrigerator and a dining room and a bedroom and a bathroom and a nice set-up for the radio. It's a good, reliable boat with all sorts of digital doohickeys all over the place. I wasn't interested in learning to use those doohickeys to use the wind for maximum speed, nor was I interested in understanding what every little bit of the boat was there for, so I just sat in my place and let Benjy and my father help out.

Now, the ideal work would work on both levels. It would be deep enough for pros, but accessible enough to pull in ordinary people so that they might become pros. As I sat, I pictured a fantasy metalude set on an ocean a la The Wind Waker, which would have a great deal of realism in its sailing mechanics (unlike that game's simplistic accessibility) but remain universal in its appeal by using that fictional setting to justify the effort. I'd be perfectly willing to be guided through the real-world nuances of sailing if I saw an interesting-looking uncharted island far off that was sure to have some excitement on it. The lure of the great unknown would pull in the newcomer (initially learning the ropes from an NPC with him), who would then get caught up in the depth of the simulator and have fun not only on the island but in between islands as well.

The last time we saw our other grandparents in Boston, they wanted to take a family photo while they could. They'd had a flat tire, so we were by a street. They didn't like that, but it's what we had. I wished I had had a camera of my own, but it was too late for that. I stood for their picture in a distracted pose, as if I'd rather not be in that particular photo. I couldn't stop them from taking only the most accessible type of picture, and I wasn't sure that I should. But I had the opportunity to add some depth and truth to the image, and so I did.



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