Understanding our Theory of Empathetic Evolution by Observing Mario Kart

Bogota Hall

Bogota, Colombia, 2013?

One of the problems with familiarity with my own work (I am indeed aware that the reasoning, principles and evidence do come from inside my own brain!) is that I process most of my experience through the model I discuss on this blog.  It is, of course, supposed to be a Theory of Everything, which means that it can be applied to Everything.  At least in my mind.

So when I read an article such as this one (which I do recommend) about what the author calls the ‘biomedical portrait of psychiatric analysis’ — attempting to shed daylight on why most psychiatrists view psychological illness and disturbance as some individual brain level chemical imbalance, instead of the complex system of environment, experience, brain chemistry and culture it obviously is — (the author hasn’t read my blog to get the whole Theory of Everything portrait,) I intrinsically fill in the holes in the author’s reasoning with my stuff.

And therein lies the rub.  The piece is a well-reasoned, well-documented piece that moves conceptually toward a lot of my writing, of the human mind as operating in a complex system — that in this case, psychological illness isn’t just a biomedical disturbance.  It’s a combination of a larger complex of factors.  But the author is still saddled with the cultural idea of the individual as iconic, and separated from others.  Which is still far removed from the larger, easily validated reality of the individual as really just an connected, synergistic part/agent in a much larger system.  (For those new readers that get stuck on THAT thought, I’d encourage you to read this piece on solitary confinement — or what happens when you really are alone.  Not good.)

Nothing sums up the inevitability of connection like this scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou.


Getting back to the original article — the writing dwells on surface-level factors. It’s the way writing on psychology often runs.  Some researcher in the discipline sets up an experiment (often with a group of 18-22 year old college students as part of a Psych 101 class) that tests some hypothesis, often undisclosed to the experimental subjects, about how students will behave. The behavior is then statistically aggregated after some fashion, and generalized to a larger population. More recently, the inevitable TED talk is made.  This turns into a narrow, shoehorned generalization of all human behavior that is supposed to supersede all other work. To be fair, the Psychology Greats (like Freud, or Jung) attempt to get under the surface — with Freud it seems like it was all dreams and penises — but an amazing amount of work gets churned out that sports little connection to underlying systems.  And if you do manage, you have to beat that horse past death.  And then maybe someone gives you a Nobel Prize.  One of the things that’s definitely lacking — virtually none of these advances are left open-ended, even the best ones (I need to get working on that Bowen Theory piece.) When I read through even the ones that I like, I still feel like if I’d show up at their annual conference, saying ‘hey, look, I extended and enveloped this iconic work, and it fits in so well inside a larger model, but there’s still a ton of unknowns here, and a couple assumptions you made that were obviously invalid,’ I’d be the proverbial leper at the cocktail party.

If I’ve learned something writing this blog, and reading the prodigious amount of material I cite, it’s that people like their perception of whatever they deem concrete.  A simpler way of stating this might be that people like Mario Kart.  For those without children, or have hidden under a rock on a desert island for the last twenty years, or have been on an extended trip to Saturn, Mario Kart is a driving game made by Nintendo, playable on any number of game platforms.  Every kid in the universe with access to electricity and a little money has played Mario Kart.  It’s a driving game, where Mario races Luigi, Princess Peach, and probably some squid.  A screenshot is below:


Mario giving Luigi a run for his money, Mario Kart 7, from this website

And, as Wikipedia will remind you, there are a lot of versions.  If you ask people to describe the laws of physics of Mario Kart, they will inevitably describe various scenes that they watch.  I honestly haven’t played Mario Kart in three shades of forever, so I would not rank as an astute observer of the game.  But I’m sure there are Koopa shells, banana peels and such, along with Princess Peach, our evolving intrepid heroine, and Mario and Luigi, doing all sorts of stuff that can be catalogued in excruciating detail.

Now here’s the rub — if you asked a cognitive psychologist HOW Mario Kart worked, they would likely describe the game.  Mario and friends race through the countryside of the Mushroom Kingdom, around Bowser’s Castle, and so on.  There may some allusions to competitions between Wario and Mario, or some plot device around saving someone, or eating mushrooms.  There also might be some connection or interpretive allegory about Princess Peach’s role in the series, or Birdo’s occasional appearance.

And here’s the thing. From the integrated insight inside the discipline of psychology (the culture) combined with the knowledge structures produced from the social structure, which is decidedly Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme-centered, we’d expect mostly a fragmented description of players’ characteristics, some consultation with the Long Term magical story arc of the Mario franchise, as well as some algorithms for cause-and-effect (redeeming coins, or bopping Koopa turtles.)  If you asked a garden-variety psychologist to describe what the next level might be like, unless, of course they played the game, they’d say ‘more of the same.’ There’s a high probability of little ability to estimate larger, discontinuous jumps in the story line.  That’s the v-Memes a talkin’.  Without larger reflection, even the best professionals are bound in the knowledge structures that map to their social structures.

Contrast that viewpoint of a hard-core game designer/computer scientist who works on these kinds of things for a living.  He/She would likely refer to the story line of the Mario franchise only incidentally.  Instead, there’d likely be a series of references to the hardware platform, the general structure of assembling object-oriented, virtual environments, and the challenges of coding a complex, entertaining game that ran at a speed that an eight-year-old master Mario Kart driver would be happy with. Descriptions of their world would not likely discuss the behavior of Mario or any of the characters at all! And if you added a master game design storyteller (think Deist God) to the mix, all discussing Mario Kart in the same room, you’d end up with a far more complete, meta-nonlinear representation of how these things have to work to entertain the mind, with Levels to Advance, Bosses to Whack, as well as technical details from the lower levels.  Scaffolding is going to matter to someone attempting to create any workable universe.

And so it is with our Theory of Empathetic Evolution. The Theory gives us the ‘how’ and ‘why’ under the concrete observable.  Without practice and study, much of this blog does not immediately map to the obvious. Which, more than anything, makes me feel embarrassed when I comment on other people’s blogs or Medium articles.  I know they’re likely not getting what I talk about.  Yet I persist, which says something about me.

The immediate response to that comment might be ‘well, all the surface-level observation of Mario Kart is just an illusion.  The enlightened master will surely know all of that and more.’  But if we consider this comment inside the context of our own Theory of Everything, this viewpoint is actually very status-oriented, and Authority-based.  We’re not granting the person watching or playing the game any agency at all.  We’re assuming that they’re unaware, which they may well be. But there may be insights into the physical manifestation of Mario Kart that may inspire our own deeper understandings, especially when we accept the larger notion of collective intelligence — that we’re really all connected. If we shut those people off from our own deeper understanding, there’s a very real chance we’ll miss the boat on what really makes Mario Kart tick. Even if they’re describing intimate detail of Koopa-banana peel interaction.

Another way of looking at this might be the paradigm that  Ken Wilber uses, called an Integral OS.  Ken calls his Integral perspective more formally All Quadrants/All Levels (AQAL) an operating system for life.  It’s deeply detailed and insightful, and since Wilber has served as a major inspiration for much of my own work, I won’t speak much ill of it.  Yet at the same time, it assumes the individual largely without context of the surrounding system. It offers aspirational pathways, and ways to measure your own progress toward enlightenment.  Yet, at the same time, it falls short of expanding itself into the integral whole we all operate under, at least if he’s not present for interpretation.

A better way of understanding our Theory of Empathetic Evolution might be to expand on this idea of a computer operating system, and maybe pull in a little Unix into the mix. Unix splits itself up into three layers: what’s called the Kernel, the software that interfaces directly with the hardware; the Shell, which is a set of customizable software commands that interface with the Kernel, and get the computer to execute specific tasks; and then finally, whatever application that runs on the top of the Shell.  The application in our example is Mario Kart, and if you’re immersed in the game, Mario Kart is as real as it can get, down to winning a race with Donkey Kong. It’s what you see from your egocentric perspective, and that big ape is gonna get you!

Down another level is the Shell.  The Shell starts the process of breaking up commands to the lower levels, of course.  But there’s something else going on here.  The Shell lets you know that there are lower levels, and those levels are structured around some set of physical laws.  There are things that now have cause-and-effect built into them as far as those physical laws of computing exist, and no longer can Mario (except in your mind) magically fly away when his car turns into a hang glider.

Down at the bottom is the Kernel, which is now completely interlocked with the physical laws of our universe — how fast things run, when things are executed, the clock that keeps track of the ticking of time.  It doesn’t look anything like Mario and Donkey Kong, but it’s what is really going on. Or rather, it’s the core of what’s going on, and only through a deeper understanding of how it works, can we start predicting more reliably the meta-nonlinear parts of our world.

And at the same time, it makes actual reality far more inaccessible to sharing with others. The comprehension, the insight, resist connection with others.  It’s a funny duality.  The more something is bound to the true physical world, the less comprehensible it is.  The further up in abstraction, the easier it is to understand.  I’m sure Zen Masters are shaking their head in agreement.  So that’s the challenge.  And filling in the answers of connection is going to have to involve all of us.

So what’s the point of all this?  It is excellent to have a larger theory that captures the meta-dynamics of human (or really, sentient) interaction.  It enables us to have some hope of predicting large scale changes in system behavior, and gives a framework for social evolution. But be aware that not everyone has that deeper view.  And even though they may be racing Bowser in Mario Kart, you can still get something from their perspective.  Just remember that Mario Kart isn’t real.  I think.  😉

Postscript — One of my favorite books of all time, Richard Bach’s Illusions, still serves a sentimental purpose in my intellectual framework.  As part of a difficult childhood, I needed to believe that everything was an illusion.  Still worth a read, and consideration for those that need Mario Kart completely dismantled.


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