ByWill Pearson - This Rocks and Why, writer at
Author of This Rocks and Why. A film/games student at USC and aspiring critic. Read his articles a week before they post here on his blog!
Will Pearson - This Rocks and Why

Important ideas conveniently appear around me, especially when I need to reconsider them. Well, perhaps I become acutely aware of a concept once I start to think about it. I do consider myself an analytical person, so maybe I’m looking at my life like a story and assessing its greater themes. Recently I noticed a pretty important one – choice. “Choice” started popping up on the first Monday of the semester. But for the sake of this piece’s structure, I think we should start the following Tuesday.

I’m in two classes this semester (both held on Tuesdays) that explored “choice” in their first lectures. First, I’m in a class called Film and Buddhism in which we learn about Buddhism as a philosophy and examine how it and its iconography are transmitted and often appropriated in film (side-note: I just found out that Davey Wreden took this class and made this video as his final project). On the first day, we briefly outlined Buddhism’s key concepts including the Four Noble Truths, which we paraphrased as follows:

1.Everything has the potential for suffering (this is often mistranslated as “life is suffering,” but our professor believes this misrepresents the beauty that Buddhists see in life).

2. The root of suffering is desire.

3. We can end suffering by letting go of desire.

4. Anyone can become enlightened.

This message is much more profound than it may seem, especially as it relates to choice. Essentially, the Buddha tells us that we can choose to be happy. All of us have the agency to dispel suffering and make ourselves happy. Not only that, we all can achieve the most peaceful state of mind, nirvana. Happiness is not for the richest or holiest or luckiest people. Let me repeat: we can choose to be happy.)

As I mentioned, I’m a very self-reflexive person. I analyze and often criticize my actions. Sometimes I’m able to live up to my expectations, but I usually disappoint myself. As a result, I fall into lethargy, and I avoid doing things that I might fail at. At these times I think that I have to feel this way, that there’s no way to fix it except to wait the feeling out.

The Buddha denies this. He says we can fix our sorrow and choose happiness. That’s not to say happiness is easy to achieve. The Buddha abandoned his lavish life along with his wife and child and tortured his body in order to find the Middle Path. You must sacrifice something to change. And you must start with the choice to change. But I find myself stuck in a perfectionist mindset – all my choices must be correct, I have no room for error. This restricts me from, well, making any choices, sometimes. I want to change, but I don’t know the best way to do so. Then I considered “playful choices.”

I’m also in an Intro to Games class (the same class for which I wrote my last piece, link here) in which we explore the terminology in game studies so we can more effectively understand, discuss, analyze, and design games. For example, our professor asked us what a “game” is. One student must have known that I needed to hear more about choice, so he defined games as an environment in which players get to make choices.

Players do things in games, and they have to decide what to do. These decisions affect their progress in the game. Sometimes there’s a right and wrong choice (you can either jump onto or over the spikey pit of death). Sometimes there’s not; some games force a player to make their own choices – consider sandbox games like The Sims, Minecraft, or GTA V. But players derive fun from their play choices. Some choices aren’t even intended by the game’s designers. Players can find a unique strategy or an entirely new goal to achieve within a game’s system. These behaviors are called “emergent gameplay.” Think of the tactics speedrunners use – not intended but very useful. Players also have to choose to play. That is, they must adhere to the system’s rules and suspend their disbelief in order to submit to its reality – this is called assuming the “lusory attitude.” Some games even explore the choice of turning off a game as a diegetic necessity, like in Save the Date or The Stanley Parable (okay, I’ll stop talking about Wreden). In this way, games can be considered the medium of choice.

Life, in this way, is one big series of games. I know, pretentious, but hear me out. Some games provide clear-cut goals like, in university, getting a diploma. Others are like sandbox games where the player has to decide everything to do, like in post-graduation. But even then, there is a system of rules and behaviors that govern the player’s actions. I’ve been considering my life like a puzzle game – that there’s always a solution to a level, and I can find it if I do the right things. Therefore, in my game, success derives from doing the correct things and progressing in the most efficient way. I think this way of thinking undervalues life’s game.

Life is more like an open-world adventure. Yes, there’s the main quest that I can follow – get a degree, a job, a house, a wife, a kid – but I can take my time to progress in this. Ultimately the side quests I choose to follow and the way I decide to upgrade my character will determine how much fun I have playing it. I mean, come on – who’s ever just done the story missions in Skyrim? That’s not the point! You can treat life like a linear, one-answer game. But there’s a whole world outside of that questline to explore. So, where do you start? How do you choose your trajectory?

Now, back to the Monday. At my university, the theater and film schools have limited resources to facilitate their collaboration. To fix this, the schools arranged for their students a mixer, to which they invited Tony Shalhoub to appear at a preceding panel. Like the majority of attendees, I came to the event to hear Monk talk (a minor point: the mixer didn’t help fix the problem).

Much like his character in Monk, Tony Shalhoub exudes intelligence and charm with a hint of reservation and unease. He considered his answers thoroughly, sometimes stumbling as he made sure each word was astute and each answer entertaining. The panel’s sharp-witted host Barnet Kellman, a film professor and a good friend of his, brought out Tony’s talent and humility with his quirky, prodding, but still insightful questions. Shalhoub mainly talked about his education at Yale and his exposure to theater, television, and film acting. He also answered questions from the audience about good and bad directors, his experience as a producer, and finding a balance between business and passion: the standard fare from a successful celebrity, nothing I hadn’t heard before.

But my ears perked at his answer to an acting student’s question about the level of spontaneity one can bring to a character. He said that when he has to decide something like a character’s move or line inflection, he commits to a choice, then he throws it away. He finds that trying to find the best character choice ultimately keeps him from choosing anything and restricts his ability to perform. He just makes a choice, does it, then moves on.

This one’s pretty simple, but it completes the lesson about choice. To review:

1.Everyone can choose to be happy.

2. Choices determine what you do and how much fun you have doing it, like in games.

3. Choices aren’t permanent; make a choice, then throw it away.

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you have nothing to complain about but you end up wallowing in that nothing, purposefully sleeping through classes, avoiding that reading response by writing a blog entry instead, then beating yourself up over it all? Well, I just had one of those. And guess what? I chose to do all of that. I chose to be sad, and I chose to do nothing about it. I know that sometime our brain chemistry can keep us from doing what we want, but the important first step is choosing how you want to feel and resolving to attain that. Maybe my problem is I don't know what I want. In other words, I don't know what the right choice is that will make me happy. Here's where Shalhoub’s insight shines through. There is no right choice. Just make one! If it works, great! If it doesn't, throw it away.

Shalhoub also mentioned a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland which he says taught him how to allow creative choices to flow freely without fear of failure. I want to read that book, because I think it'll help me get over this whole “right choice” idea of mine. I've just gotta choose which day to buy it.

I now choose to end this article with (besides hitting you over the head with “choice”) a video essay from Every Frame a Painting about visual representation of choice. If you haven't checked out this channel, I highly encourage it. I aspire to make content as intelligent, cogent, and eye-opening as Tony Zhou’s. That's why I'm trying my hand at this blog thing. But while I'm starting out, watch the master at work.

This was an article originally posted on my blog, This Rocks and Why. If you wanna read my new stuff a week before I post it here, go check out my blog!

Here's that url ----->


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