Monday, March 31, 2014

A Slip of the Hand

The patient is stable and unconscious on the gurney. The skin that normally covers the chest cavity has been carefully removed to make way for this routine heart transplant. And here I am overlooking the scene, a pudgy hand hanging suspended over the recipient.

To my right and my left there are two hospital tray tables adorned with various tools and objects. Pens. Beakers. Scalpels. Tweezers. Bone saw. Handsaw. Hammer. Power drill. The replacement heart sits ready in a closed container.

A monitor beeps steadily, rhythmically. Everything is in order. Everything awaits.

I use my physical right hand to move my physical computer mouse, which in turn moves my on-screen hand in the corresponding direction. It hovers over the bone saw on the right-hand tray. I click the left mouse button and the hand lowers, smashes into the careful arrangement of objects, causing them to scatter. The hand jerks around like a crashed automobile under the influence of a drunk driver, and I do my best to realign the surgeon's palm in the correct orientation. With my real left hand at my physical keyboard, I arrange the fingers in such a way that they mimic the arrangement of fingertips on my virtual hand. I press the five keys all at once, The hand becomes a fist, and within its clumsy grip—loosely, miraculously—the mechanical bone saw whirs to life. The operation is about to begin.

Now stop right there for a moment.

Stop and forget about all the gruesome, bloody humor. Put aside the unscientific ridiculousness of it all, the absurd lack of protocol and procedure. The hilarious images of shattered bone fragments falling by the wayside as you tear into the ribcage. Memories of ripping out the patient's left lung with your bare hand and flinging it with abandon over the patient's head—just as your digital wristwatch accidentally unclasps itself and falls into the fleshy void.

Maybe I have a tendency to read too far into things. I over analyze. I draw connections where none reasonably exist. But there's something about this stupid game that's just too deadly serious. Something about it just resonates.

Notice how the game starts off in a reception area. It's the same pudgy hand suspended in midair, only instead of hovering over a soon-to-be cadaver there is a mouse, keyboard, computer monitor, notebook, binders, telephone. All the familiar, tangible minutiae of the daily office grind. Everything is once again so neatly arranged like a fresh day of work yet to begin its course. And then you try to pick something up and it all falls apart.

If I had to offer a purely functional description for Surgeon Simulator 2013, I would say it's like an elaborate crane game with an ironic motif. But for me it's something more.

For me, Surgeon Simulator is a meditation on life in the digital age. It's a study of dreadful incompetence. Just like that fumbling hand (I imagine it all clammy with sweat) I reflect upon my own failure to grasp at the meaning of things, my inability to control my circumstances. I'm reminded of all the things that seem to elude me—the satisfaction of work, the motivation to write, stable finances, and meaningful relationships with the people around me. There's a running Easter egg subplot in the game involving a woman named Trisha, with scattered post-it notes directing the player to call her. And yet her phone number is scattered and hidden away in clues I haven't managed to locate, adding yet another thematic layer of frustration, confusion, and—if I had to guess—romantic turmoil.

When you think about it, Surgeon Simulator invites us to embody a digital persona in one of the most deliberately representational ways imaginable. If we really wanted to, we could use our real-life hand to direct that real-life computer mouse to make that representational hand pick up and start clicking at that representational computer mouse. (As a side note, think about all the grandmothers out there who never learned the muscle memory required to do the first part of that activity! Remember my own self as a 6-year-old using our new family computer for the first time, playing a game with the mouse that was teaching me how to click on icons. I was born again, as they say—in a transhuman manner of speaking! Those were my baby steps into a new kind of machine-body hybrid identity, and I didn't even know it.)

The physical clumsiness is just a metaphor, a clever stand-in for the incompetence (be it spiritual, psychological, sexual, etc.) of the real-life player. The surgery aspect is an illustrative backdrop, a funny stage and canvas for letting that incompetence play out. Successfully complete all of the available operations in order, and you will eventually unlock the ability to perform those same operations in space, where all of your tools and objects float around in zero gravity. That's what we call taking a metaphor to its most surreal and extreme limits.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to list off just a few of the struggles and setbacks that have been fighting to take over my life—and my wife's—for the past four months or so. There's a cat slowly succumbing to feline AIDS and mounting vet bills. A vehicle that broke down that was too expensive to either repair or replace—leaving us without a car for the foreseeable future. There was water damage to our rented condo and an extended construction period that left our living space in utter shambles for over a month. We've been dealing with all of these things and more while simultaneously going about at our regular jobs, trying not to fuck up our daily expected routines.

But here's the coup de grĂ¢ce—the peak of bitter irony. Normally I would be composing this monthly blog post on my laptop computer. Instead I'm fumbling around with the touch-screen word processor app on my cell phone.

Why? Because just as I'm finishing tonight's dinner and sitting down at the dining room table to start writing—just as I'm booting up the game to make note of some last-minute observations, my right hand accidentally brushes into contact with a half-full bottle of soda. The bottle falls over and spills directly onto my keyboard.

One careless, errant swipe. Betrayed by my own flesh-and-blood hand.


I don't yet know if my laptop is ruined or not. If so, tally it up as yet another $1,000+ financial setback that I can't do anything to remedy for the time being. All I can do now is give it a few days to dry out and see what happens when I turn it back on. Focusing on this blog post is the only thing that's keeping me from losing my shit.

Believe it or not, today was shaping up to be a good day. I actually managed to make progress on my writing at work. And toward the end of the day, I even had a few spare minutes to jot down some ideas for this blog entry that had been germinating in my head. Everything was in order! All that was missing was my hands over the mouse and keyboard to begin the work. Then disaster.

I don't know if this writing amounts to anything or not. It's just the best I could manage with the situation that transpired, because sometimes your scalpel gets lodged in the patient's kidney. Sometimes all your standard instruments go falling out the back of the moving ambulance and you have to improvise with whatever is left. Sure it's less than ideal, but the patient is still worth saving, right?

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