Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Learning to Tell Different Stories

Motoko Kusanagi from "Ghost in the Shell"
One of the things I have enjoyed with my children is sharing my love of Anime with them. Anime, for those not familiar, is the animation style that developed in Japan and has had a varied level of interest in the U.S. over the past 50 years.

 I first became familiar with Anime through shows like Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer and Gatchaman (which we knew in the states as “Battle of the Planets”). This was my early introduction to this style, and over the years, it’s become better known and more titles have become available in the U.S. over the past few decades. Unlike in the U.S., where animation is often seen as programming for kids, Anime is developed for all ages and some is as gripping and intense as the most well produced cable television series and, in some cases, motion pictures (for those interested, some of my favorites are "Ghost in the Shell", "Cowboy Bebop", "Fullmetal Alchemist", "Neon Genesis Evangelion", "Clannad" and "Wolf's Rain").

Why am I bringing this up on a testing blog? It’s because, as I’ve been sharing these stories with my children, I’ve enjoyed answering some of their questions or finding out more about some of the questions they ask. One of the things that I have been sharing with them is the fact that Japan, though in many ways a modern industrial culture, has very different cultural traditions as compared to the U.S. Key to that are their religious and social mores. Many of the references made in these shows are things that are very familiar to us in the U.S., but there are also subtleties that are very Japanese.

We are used to many of the stories that are told in the “Western” tradition being told from the perspective of Judeo-Christian values. These values, mixed in with Greek philosophy, make up the bulk of the stories and the legends that have come down to us. The fairy tales and literature that we are most familiar with have many things that we would look at naturally; good overcomes evil, the hero saves the day, the protagonist generally achieves his goal, and they all lived happily ever after.

The stories that appear in Anime do not always flow this way. Often evil does succeed. Often the protagonist dies.The resolution of many series is left to be ambiguous at best. Frankly, I enjoy that. I like Anime because it helps me look at different cultural stories and see what is common to the human experience, but more to the point, I like seeing what is different. Some of my friends who have grown up in Japan and who indulge me in talking about some of these stories have told me that there are maybe a hundred little things in any given series that would go over the head of an everyday Western viewer. There are inside jokes, idioms, aspects of the way characters are drawn, interact with each other, look at each other, and things that we would take as insignificant quirks. To those who have grown up with it, these small quirks are actually very significant. I like being clued into these things, because I can view the shows again after several years, and I see new aspects I never knew about. They were always there, but I was not trained to see them.

Today, we as testers have similar opportunities. When we make a shift from one product to another, we also get the chance to see the stories that are universal. But we also get to see those things that are very unique to their own industry, niche, market, or worldview. If we think that knowing a bit of testing “best practices” will carry us over to all circumstances, we are very much mistaken and we will miss a lot of stuff. We have to get used to those new stories, and learn the nuances that make them unique, and in turn understand the underlying culture and how that underlying culture informs the stories. Doing that will not necessarily make you an expert in every domain, but it will definitely give you a better chance of getting closer to that goal in the domain you are currently working in.
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