The Age of Complexity: how fiction helps us deal with uncertainty

Photograph: Helen Sloan/2017 Home Box Office, Inc. All

Photograph: Helen Sloan/2017 Home Box Office, Inc. All

This is the Age of Complexity: a time of disruption, uncertainty, diversity, ambiguity, flux. Nothing, it seems, is simple anymore.

The trouble is, we really don’t like complexity and difficulty; we like things to be simple and clear. And as the world gets more complex, our responses become more simplistic. This tension can be linked to such modern phenomena as the paradox of choice, filter bubbles, the resurgence of nationalism, the alt right, and Gamergate. Complexity, and our responses to it, have become the defining characteristics of our age. 

Recent Flamingo work on the topic highlighted a number of strategies for brands looking to cope with uncertainty and difficulty, all of which propose different approaches to stabilisation. But in fiction and the imaginative realm, now more than ever before, we see a more positive, engaged response to complexity. 

TV, movies, video games, and other forms of play offer us a safe space in which we can practise complexity: embracing ambiguity, difficulty and risk without fear or consequence.

Game of Thrones offers one obvious example. Such a complex, difficult drama, with its brutal, unjust world, in which good folks die, bad folks thrive and surprise events can change the course of the world, is arguably unlikely to have resonated quite so strongly in the more stable, pre-millennial era.

Tonal and thematic shifts in teen drama also reflect the trend towards exploring difficult, complicated subject matter. Historically, teen TV drama has focused on exploring the externalisation of angst: rebellion, drugs, sex, and so on. But the frontier is turning inwards, with an increasing focus on difficult, and traditionally adult subject matter, with shows exploring issues such as mental health and suicide (13 Reasons Why), murder (The End of the F***ing World), and death (Pretty Little Things, Riverdale)

Making a Murderer offers a very different approach: a richly detailed, intimate exploration of a case of sexual assault and attempted murder, in which we are invited to engage deeply with the case and make up our own minds: embracing complexity to allow us to arrive at a deeper truth.

Video games are also embracing difficult issues in their own unique way. Games remain a relatively young medium, with a tendency towards simplistic and crude narratives. But a number of recent titles move away from the historic power fantasies of gaming to more grounded enquiry into real, painful, difficult subject matter.

A Night In The Woods explores the challenges of growing up, loss, mental health, and the sheer indifference of the world to us, providing “an allegory for the millennial generation”. Gaming’s new frontier invites us to explore difficult issues from the perspective of others: a couple’s experience watching their son die from cancer (That Dragon, Cancer); an immigration officer exploring questions around migration, morality and prejudice (Papers, Please); the civilian experience of war, as complex, ugly, and ambiguous (This War Of Mine).

These TV shows and games succeed because they embrace complexity, not despite it. They offer engagement as much as escapism. They encourage us to not just retreat from a difficult world, but to actively grapple with it, albeit indirectly. They allow content providers to build authority and trust, not just by simplifying the world into easy narratives and formats, but by also engaging with the terrifying complexity of our age. They accept that there are no easy answers, and often no happy endings.

There aren’t many simple ways of explaining the world any more. But in embracing rather than shying away from complexity, fiction can help us tool up: to practise complexity, and in doing so, perhaps return us to the real world stronger, more invigorated and better able to cope with the challenges it presents.

Hadley Coull, Flamingo

A similar article, written by Hadley Coull and Andy Davidson of Flamingo, was recently published on Contagious