Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. We wrap up this year’s week with a manifesto on gaming that speaks, frankly, for itself.
I have been a gamer for ninety percent of my life. That ratio is going to increase, and that much is certain. However, it’s important to note that I’m only thirty. That means that I started gaming when I was three years old. I’ve told that particular story many times before, about how my grandfather held me up to the Pac-Man cabinet at the pizza parlor and let me play.
I’m going to put it to you, my fellows, that there was no safe point. There was no time in the world when gaming, of some kind or another, did not engulf this world and have a chance to put its hands on me, and itself in my hands. Think on this for a moment: In the fall of 1983 CBS introduced the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, as well as the Saturday Supercade, which was in addition to the Pac-Man cartoon that had premiered the year before on ABC. Video gaming was big enough then to spawn mainstream television about it– but it would also spawn controversy.
The idea that media can be created and developed stands at odds to the desire of those in charge of the existing media to stay in charge. Newspapers felt threatened by radio, which felt threatened by television, which has felt threatened by the internet and video games. It’s all a matter of companies in control wanting to remain in control, and when a new source of information– a new medium– comes along, it shakes up the balance of viewership and power within all media. Some might say that that’s a needlessly cynical view, but I posit that it isn’t cynical enough. Human nature being what it is, there’s a reason we have the aphorism about power and corruption.
Nowadays, the public at large doesn’t fall into a huge panic about every new little thing that comes around. With the maturation of a sufficiently jaded generation, we recognize that rock and roll is here to stay, that Dungeons and Dragons inspires creativity, that video games can be a great way to pass the time, and that the internet is not entirely for porn. It is because we have lived through the persecution of these media that we understand that the needless ridicule and pseudo-vetting process isn’t helping matters and in fact hinders the acceptance of potentially beneficial technologies.
In the world of video games, however, few are as universally accepted as flight simulators. While around 2002 there was some unfortunate misunderstanding regarding their ease of acquisition, in general the flight simulator is a well accepted and perfectly understood piece of software that is almost always hailed as a “game”. Microsoft’s Flight Simulator software line has been going strong for decades now, and as technology has advanced, it is possible to build a flight cockpit so realistic as to permit its use as part of a real pilot’s training regimen. There are many arguments as to why realism in games is a bad thing, but if this “game” was not so realistic– if it did not conform to the physical world in every way– would it be as accepted? I think not. I think, in point of fact, that if MS Flight Simulator had featured and prided itself on even the slightest deviancy from reality, it alone would be held responsible for the events of late 2001 by the court of public opinion.
When you get down to it, that’s where the world finds its greatest fear in games. The world cannot accept the fact that there is something wrong with it. In employing imagination to alter the parameters of the world– to presuppose that something that is, should not be, and that something that isn’t, should– the collective society is cut to the quick. Such a declaration irrationally frightens people. I have absolutely no idea why.
Is it really so bad to conceive of a world better than ours is? Are people so unwilling to engage in self-analysis and reflection that they would instead turn a blind eye to anything that highlights their imperfection? More than that, even with completely fantastical elements such as magic, or advanced technology, people are squeamish to the point of repudiation. Why is this? What could provoke such an irrational, pointless, self-destructive fear? What did Harry Potter, Gandalf the Grey, Malcolm Reynolds, and Luke Skywalker ever do to you?
Some people say that being a gamer is a pejorative mark, and that it’s indicative of an intellect that far outstrips its social grace. I think it’s the other way around. I think that those individuals who play games, who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, are able to set aside the more ridiculous preconceptions of society and engage their imaginations with all four cylinders running. The ability to see the flaws in a situation and conjure up ways it can be improved is nothing but a benefit.
Society has always had a love-hate relationship with imagination. We encourage our youngest children to make-believe, to pretend and to imagine the limitless possibilities that stand before them. As time wears on, though, we teach them instead that imagination is poisonous, that someone who isn’t 100% completely grounded in reality at all times without the slightest spark of creativity is going to be forever a child. We encourage imagination at early ages because we see it as a childish conceit, instead of proof of our innocence which we must never lose. The day we, collectively, stop dreaming is the day we, to a man, die.
On the flip side, though, an overabundance of imagination is poisonous. If we lose contact with reality entirely, we become unhinged, deranged, dangerous. Someone who is unable to understand the connection they have to the world, and the world to which they have a connection, is a liability no matter what wondrous works they conceive of. It’s important to have a basis in reality, but that doesn’t mean we have to be there all the time. Moderation is the key, as it is with everything in this world, or worlds we have yet to even hear of.
For my part, and from my perspective, gaming and creativity are the sparks most people need to rekindle the fires of their imagination. They see the worlds that others have created, even if they’re as simple as a yellow partial pizza chomping dots and escaping ghosts in a blue maze. Somewhere in that interaction– in plugging yourself into someone else’s world and letting the real one fall away, for a time– your own world comes alive once more. And there can be no greater good than finding that the worlds you once thought were things of your past, the mental places you played in as a child, can be passed down to the children you have, or will have.
So let’s play a game.