Even though this is a long rambling article about why the cyberpunk genre is a metaphor for creativity and imagination itself and why the world needs the cyberpunk genre, I’m going to have to start by talking about about the experience of reading and playing various things. There’s a reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.
Although I had been busy with making my Halloween webcomic the night before I wrote this article, I got distracted. Naturally, the cause of this procrastination was none other than a computer game. Yes, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” again. I’d originally planned to set aside an hour or two to play it, but I ended up having the kind of marathon 3-5 hour gaming session that I haven’t had in a while. And I still haven’t finished the damn thing yet!
This, in combination with a few other things I’d been looking at recently, made me think about the subject of trances and creative works. Because, one thing I noticed when playing “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” was that I was feeling a slightly similar sense of.. immersion.. to the one I feel when watching a good TV show or reading a good novel. But, because of the game’s interactive nature, it was a bit more like the sense of immersion I feel when I’m making an inspired piece of art or, more accurately, when I’m writing fiction (and feeling very inspired)!
This is the kind of feeling where the outside world seems to fade away slightly and you become part of the thing that you’re reading, writing, drawing, playing, watching etc…
The best way to experience this for yourself is to put a playlist or a CD of good music on in the background whilst reading a really good novel. When you stop reading the novel, you’ll suddenly realise that you can’t remember hearing the last few songs on the playlist. They were playing, but you didn’t notice them because your consciousness was somewhere else.
Likewise, the experience of suddenly looking away from the screen after binge-watching a compelling TV show or playing a fascinating computer game for a few hours can feel like a very mild existential crisis of sorts. For half a second, the world around you seems both starkly empty and bizarrely alien at the same time. For a second, nothing seems to mean anything.
In essence, being immersed in a creative work (whether making or experiencing it) is almost a mild trance-like state. The best description that I’ve read of this can be found in a short story called “An Extra Smidgen Of Eternity” By Robert Rodi. Rodi’s description is: ‘Stories are hope. They take you out of yourself for a bit, and when you’re dropped back in, you’re different – you’re stronger, you’ve seen more, you’ve felt more. Stories are like spiritual currency.’
Likewise, I also found a fascinating Youtube video which pointed out that patterns of brain activity whilst playing a computer game that you’re really good at are actually closer to patterns of brain activity during daydreams than anything else. And, yes, I haven’t mentioned daydreams in this article because that would be a whole article in and of itself.
This naturally made me think about the cyberpunk genre, since I’d seen the word “trance” used in combination with it a couple of times recently. Once was when I played a game called “Technobabylon” a few months ago (in the game, connecting to virtual reality is called “trancing”) and the other was when I watched an absolutely brilliant low-budget sci-fi movie from the 80s called “Trancers“. It’s a weird film about time travel, zombies and hardboiled detectives. It’s barely cyberpunk in the technical sense of the term. But, neither is “Blade Runner” and the cyberpunk genre would be a lot poorer without that film. But, I digress….
In it’s most traditional form, the cyberpunk genre is entirely about this trance-like state that I mentioned earlier. It’s a genre of fiction/cinema/gaming about characters who spend more time existing in rich, detailed virtual reality worlds than they do in the stark, dystopian “real world” of the future. It’s a literal embodiment of the “existential crisis” thing that I mentioned earlier, when talking about looking away from the screen after being immersed in a game or DVD for hours.
But, more than that, it often frames this “escapism” into virtual reality as a heroic thing. Which is awesome 🙂 The heroes and heroines of the cyberpunk genre aren’t muscular soldiers, charismatic figures or anything like that. They’re people with mediocre, boring and/or crappy “real” lives who only truly flourish within imagined artificial worlds. They become vaguely shamanic explorers who are more than they might appear to be on the surface. Writers, artists, introverts and/or nerds of all kinds can probably see the appeal of this metaphor.
Escapism tends to get a bad press. Even I had to suppress a bit of a laugh at myself when I talked about a “marathon 3-5 hour gaming session” at the beginning of the article. Ok, I didn’t drink any energy drinks or start talking in l33tspe4k or anything like that, but I couldn’t help but affectionately think of myself as a hilariously pathetic “nerd” afterwards.
But, if there’s anything that this world needs, it’s the trance-like state that comes from creative works. I write these articles quite far in advance, but I can’t imagine that the real world right now is any better than it was at the beginning of this year. Not only does this trance-like state help to preserve our sanity, but it also helps us to develop as people too. And, as much as activists of all kinds might disagree, it’s probably good for the world too.
If you enjoy this kind of thing you’re (like me) probably something of an introvert. Don’t worry, immersion in creative works isn’t going *ugh* to turn you into some kind of brash, superficial, hyper-social charismatic figure or anything like that. During 2016, several parts of the world were thrown into chaos by these kinds of charismatic businesspeople, journalists, politicians, celebrities, religious figures etc…. The world needs less of these type of “heroes”. They tend to mess things up. What the world needs is subtlety and nuance.
The world needs new heroes. It needs a type of heroism that can actually be translated into real life. Charismatic superhero-like “strong men” are always far better in fiction than they are in real life.
But, the kind of people who can navigate the landscape of their own imaginations and turn the things they find into things that inspire other people or expand other people’s view of the world (and themselves) are the kind of heroic people we need. Even if you just read/watch/play a lot of things and don’t create anything, you’re probably going to have a more intricate, nuanced and developed understanding of the world, of politics and humanity than you might think. It’s educational!
Going back to “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”, it is a cyberpunk fantasy computer game that is set in an anarchist mini-state in Berlin. Although this isn’t a major part of the game, it will probably teach you more about both the pitfalls and the benefits of anarchy than anything else will.
The main plot of the game is, in part, about the problems of relying on one person for leadership. The community of characters in the game is also an example of a (mostly) functioning society without a leader. People follow their vocations in life and, in the process, help other people. It’s a bit like John Lennon’s “Imagine” in some ways. Society is, mostly, fairly laid-back and non-judgemental (but not in a preachy way).
Yet, the game doesn’t shy away from the reality of anarchy either. With no police force, people are forced to rely on armed mercenaries (like the character you play as) to solve their problems. With no laws, people have to rely on verbal contracts that can easily be broken if they aren’t mutually-beneficial enough. Likewise, with no law or order, the only thing keeping amoral mega-corporations and violent political gangs in check is other mega-corporations and violent political gangs.
Spending hours in a trance-like state playing this game might seem like “wasted time”. But, it’ll make you think more about politics, humanity and the world than you might expect. It’ll help to add nuance to your opinions about things like the role of government etc… It’ll also give you a slightly deeper understanding of humanity itself, of the value of mutally-beneficial things etc…
It’s like the lyrics to a song (I can’t remember which one) by an acoustic punk band called Johnny Hobo And The Freight Trains: “A punk rock song will never change the world/ But I can tell you about a few that changed me“.
We need more introverted “heroes” in the world, and the cyberpunk genre provides these in abundance.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂