Saturday, July 29, 2006

Essay: The Tyranny of the Visual

Chris Crawford is one my heroes. Back when I was maybe 10 or so, he worked at Atari and wrote several games (back when you could develop a game by yourself). Since then, he's become sort of a guru (albeit a controversial one) on the untapped potential of computer gaming.

Here's a thought-provoking essay he wrote about how we (particularly as designers) get stuck on only the things we see.

When you gaze upon a scene, do you imagine that you are perceiving reality? I certainly don't. I imagine that I am perceiving a tiny fragment of reality, perceiving reality through the narrow window of the visual. I look at a tree and perceive so much more than a simple visual image. I imagine the fluids slowly creeping through its cambium, the photosynthesis taking place in its leaves, the absorption of nutrients from the soil all these invisible processes that are central to the life of a tree. My eyes don't tell me much about the tree; there's so much more going on out of my view.

Note that this perception of the tree is informed, indeed driven, by my education. Because I have read about biology and trees and physics, I bring to bear an understanding that allows me to see deeper inside the tree. My perception of the universe is an integration of my knowledge and my senses. Thus, I look upon the world with different eyes than you do. My real eyes exist inside my mind, and bring to bear everything I perceive and know about reality.

Here's an analogy for you. Suppose that you are watching a black-and-white movie. You see an apple. It's presented in shades of gray, but you know that the apple must be red. Your real eyes see a gray apple, but your mind's eye fills in the color. Now extend that analogy in a hundred different directions. What if you also perceived the smooth texture of the apple's skin, the slow oxidation of the apple's flesh as oxygen seeps through the skin, the slow loss of water moving in the opposite direction, the water gradient inside the apple everything going on in that apple. I can "see" those things when I gaze upon an apple. So I ask you: by living solely in the world of the visual, are you "seeing" less of the world than you could?
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posted by Brian at 9:35 PM

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