A Game of You

I love JRPGs. I was one of those kids who felt it almost a matter of duty to wander around the area maps, fighting minor enemies in order to grind out experience points and level up.

In such games, you often get money when you defeat an enemy. You can use that money to buy armor for defense, or weapons for offense.

Say you are playing such a game and decide to save up all your money to buy the most powerful weapon in the game, which is only possible if you don’t buy any armor. You wager that you’ll be able to defeat the last boss faster than he will be able to exploit your weak defense.

Say things don’t play out that way, but instead you are swiftly defeated.

This happened because there is more to the game than your intentions or even your choices. The course of events is determined by the game as a whole, which includes but is much larger than your part of it.

Art and rhetoric are both fields of play. To create a work of art is to invite spectators into a meaning-game.

Jacques-Louis David invited us to see Napoleon as a romantic and heroic figure. The French, in general, continue to play the game more or less according to the rules set by that artist. These games have become a central part in how the meaning of Napoleon’s life and reign are understood.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

But the artist is not an absolute monarch of the game. His role is more like the JRPG player than the JRPG designer. Many kings have commissioned flattering portrayals that spectators have played against the intention of the artist or patron. When the aggrandizing was so far removed from their understanding of the subject matter, it only deepened or even created the image of a delusional and self-obsessed man where the image of a great man was intended.

We see this prominently in the never ending public struggle of American political rhetoric-games. A rhetorical flourish intended to invite a sympathetic response is ruthlessly played against its intentions by enemies. Thus Jeb Bush’s request to “please clap,” was intended to be played as self-effacing humor, but ended up being played in the larger narrative of patheticness that more successfully characterized his public image and his campaign.

Unlike a JRPG, these are not games you can opt out of. If you do not attend to the meaning-games of the subjects that matter to you, such as your own life, someone will.

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