8/10/2008

Am I in a fictional character's address book?

I can't figure out whether the following worries about fictional characters are interesting or silly. They are certainly amateurish, because I don't know the literature about fiction well.

I recently got a Nintendo Wii. You can receive emails on your Wii; you also get various sorts of system updates there. In my Wii inbox yesterday, there was an email from a character in one of the games I'm playing. (Not that it matters, but for sake of concreteness, the email was from a character called the 'mailtoad.')

Now I think there's something strange about the sentence
'Greg got an email from the mailtoad.'*
Why? Because the mailtoad is fictional, and I would've thought it was impossible for me to receive communications from fictional characters. I would've thought that fictional characters can only send letters to other fictional characters, and I'm pretty sure I'm not a fictional character.

Often, if there is a sentence about a fictional character that intuitively feels true, that's because in the fiction the sentence is literally true. That is, while 'Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street' is not literally true, nonetheless 'In the stories written by Conan Doyle, Holmes lives on Baker Street' is literally true. And that accounts for why there is some intuitive pull towards calling it true.

But this won't really work in the present case of my email from the mailtoad: I received an email -- in the actual world. But I am not a fictional character, and I do not appear in the fiction, as e.g. Napoleon appears in War & Peace. This looks analogous to the real-life Napoleon finding a letter from one of the fictional characters of War & Peace in his mailbox.

It seems like the least crazy thing to say is that the mailtoad did not send me a letter, but rather some combination of hardware and software --which are non-fictional things -- sent me the email. But then what is the relationship between the hardware + software combination and the fictional character? I don't have a well-posed worry here, but it does seem pretty different from the way words on a page are related to Sherlock Holmes.

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* Actually, the email was addressed to Mario, the character I'm playing in the game. If you think this dissolves the problem, then for the rest of this post, just counterfactually suppose the word "Mario" was not in the first line of the email. But I think it is still weird to intercept a communique from one fictional character to another in my inbox... maybe not as weird, though.

10 Comments:

At 10/8/08, Blogger Daniel Lindquist said...

I don't see anything puzzling here. If you can kill a goomba, then why can't you get an e-mail from a goomba? Why is murdering a fictional character more troublesome than getting e-mail from one? (Presumably the goomba e-mailing you would not bother you more than the Mailtoad. Though I guess there'd be the puzzle of how a goomba could type.)

Would it bother you to read e-mail from the Mailtaod within the game? If not, then why does it bother you to have the two inboxes combined on your Wii?

 
At 10/8/08, Anonymous Peter Borah said...

If you really want to blur the lines between fiction and reality, you ought to spend some time with Alternate Reality Games. (Argn.com, for example.)

I've done far more than gotten email from fictional characters. I once received a package from a fictional character thanking me for my help with his (fictional) problem and giving me three pairs of sunglasses he found in his (fictional) attic.

I think the simplest resolution to your worry is to accept that you are, in some since, part of the fictional world. "In the game, I get mail from the mailtoad," but, "In reality, a combination of software and hardware produced an email claiming to be from the mailtoad".

 
At 10/8/08, Blogger Greg said...

Daniel --

1. My feeling is that I don't kill a goomba, but rather the character I'm playing kills it. I guess that's akin to Hamlet killing Polonius: the actor playing Hamlet does not kill the actor playing Polonius.

2. I think your last question -- "Why does it bother you to have the two inboxes combined on your Wii?" -- is spot on. It does bother me, because my inbox is not part of the game. There is somehow 'seepage' or something of the game out of what I thought were its confines. I know I would be freaked out if the storyline of a fictional book 'seeped' into my real life (what's that Will Farell movie?). On the other hand, I guess I wouldn't be freaked out if a stage actor while in character interacted with me while I sat in the audience of a performance. hmm...

2. Peter --

Holy crap. That's a great example. Actually, it looks like my non-philosophy friends finally think I'm becoming a real philosopher, since I told them that I've been wondering about whether I might be fictional.

 
At 11/8/08, Blogger Kenny said...

A few thoughts.

Maybe the mailtoad isn't fictional, but is something like the Mailer-Daemon that e-mails you if you send a message to an address that doesn't exist, or send an e-mail that's too large for the box you're sending it to. A real subroutine, that happens to share its name with a fictional character.

Maybe you didn't really receive an e-mail from the mailtoad. I get e-mails in my inbox all the time that claim to be from Barack Obama or John Kerry or someone similar. I don't think those people are really the authors or senders of the e-mails I get. Perhaps this e-mail is similar.

Also, that's definitely a great game!

 
At 11/8/08, Anonymous P.D. said...

I've been puzzling about this one. I think that the right thing to say is that you played a game in which you received an e-mail from mailtoad. That is, your character in the game received a message from a fictional character. Even if the e-mail had said "Greg" at the top, it would be addressed to the character "Greg" rather than to the real world you. Of course, the real world you has to do something in order to make these moves in the game. The thing you do to make the move is receive a message in your actual e-mail program. The message is an automatically generated one, which is no more problematic than any automated e-mail.

This case seems puzzling only because the actions you take to make the move (receiving an e-mail in your account) are very much like the move you are making in the game (receiving an e-mail in the game). With chess, moving wooden pieces across the board is nothing like a knight capturing a bishop. However, it's the same relation between the actions required to take the move and the move made in the game.

 
At 23/8/08, Blogger Enigman said...

Hmm... is an email the meaning of the email or the electronic signals? When you get an email sent by a non-fictional human, it is similarly physically caused by a combination of hardware (body movements) and software (thoughts and such). So I wonder what makes mailtoad fictional. After all, some philosophers think of our self-identities as made-up, to some extent (of us as just biochemical).

And really, one's physical existence may be 10-dimensional strings or such, quite unlike the 3-dimensional continuant that one ordinarily takes oneself to be - much as the mailtoad is not what it seems to be in the fiction, but is physically electronic. The mailtoad is not aware, is presumably not alive, but maybe we are little more than biochemistry, and maybe mailtoad is aware. You think that you refer to the fictional form of the mailtoad by "mailtoad," but I think that I refer to impossibly objectively red rose-petals with "rose." And so on and on...

 
At 9/12/08, Anonymous Avrom said...

I'm not sure you need high technology to create a situation like this. When I was a child, I sometimes got money from the Tooth Fairy. Was that really so different from your email from mailtoad?

 
At 9/12/08, Blogger Greg said...

Avrom --

Thanks for the comment. That strikes me as a very good point.

I guess one difference that might be important is that it's part of the Tooth Fairy (and Santa Claus, etc.) story that this mythical thing IS SUPPOSED to interact with you -- that is, it's supposed to be in the real world, not in a fictional world (unlike the Mailtoad).

Perhaps also it's not so weird because your parents are, as it were, 'playing the role' of Santa or the Tooth Fairy. And we need not think of that as any different from our interacting with a temporary stage actor.

But maybe you're right that the Mailtoad is no weirder or worrisome than the tooth fairy. I'm just not sure.

 
At 9/12/08, Anonymous Avrom said...

Isn't the mailtoad (or, rather, the hypothetical version of the mailtoad that sends email to you, rather than Mario c/o you), *supposed* to interact with you in just this sense? Not face-to-face, of course (as it would be if it suddenly turned to face the fourth wall *in the game* and called you by your real name), but if the conceit is that the mailtoad is sending you email, it seems that the conceit is that it's interacting with you--just as the conceit is that the tooth fairy interacts with children.

 
At 9/12/08, Anonymous Avrom said...

Thinking about this some more, I think that what may be puzzling you in this case is that the "story" of Super Mario XCVI (or whatever the exact game you're playing is) is told in mixed media, and we're not really used to mixed-media stories yet. Part of the story takes place on your WII screen, and part of it takes place via the medium of email. It *is* part of the story that the mailtoad interacts with you, even if this part of the story is not actually told when you have your controller in hand.

This is just the same as if some enterprising author sent out holiday greetings, purporting to be from their main character, to anyone who buys the book. As a matter of fact, in the complete story they've told (though not in the original book, and it might be a place where in sequels it would behoove the author to ignore continuity), this character does send mail to real people.

 

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