Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Gaming Education: Gamer Mom

I’m coming back from the shops with Dad. The sun is shining, and I’m carrying two shopping bags in each hand to show Dad how strong I am. I’m trying to tell him about the things I love. I’m twelve. What I love is collecting Warhammer.

“I’m collecting Space Marines at the moment, Dad. Space Marines are these super warriors. They’re over seven feet tall, and they’ve got two hearts, in case one gets damaged, and they protect the Emperor, who almost died, but kind of got put into cryo-stasis before he died so now he’s not really alive, but the Space Marines protect him anyway, they protect all of humanity, Dad, because it’s their sworn duty. They’re very noble like that.”

I risk a glance up. Dad isn’t listening. I change tack.

“But Space Marines are kind of boring. I’m thinking of collecting Imperial Guard next. They’re friends with the Space Marines, but they’re a lot more believable. You’d like the Imperial Guard — they’re regular soldiers, and they have all these tanks and heavy ordnance, and they beat enemies because there are so many of them. The Space Marines are elite and each chapter only has a thousand Space Marines in, but there are loads and loads of Imperial Guard, and they all look different depending what planet they’re from. And, Dad, there are these new ones that have just come out and they look like English soldiers from … was it one hundred years ago? When English soldiers wore red and fought in Rorke’s Drift. Like when we watched Zulu together. They’re really cool, Dad.”

“I see,” Dad says. We walk on in silence a while, then I ask him about football, so we have something to talk about….

This recollection will not, I’m sure, be unfamiliar to many of you who play videogames. Ours is a niche hobby, and anyone passionate about it will likely know the pain of trying to explain our passion to others, to bring the people we care about into our worlds, to be understood, to be accepted.

Gamer Mom is an indie adventure game about just such difficulties. In it you play as a woman trying to convince her sullen daughter and work-stressed husband to join her in a game of World of Warcraft. You navigate conversational routes, at times trying subtlety to intrigue your family, at others engaging them in small talk to bring them back on your side. Sometimes you get carried away in your exuberance and leap out of your chair. There are many poignant moments when you wait for a positive response. And wait. And wait.

It is a simple game to play, with a nice script, and a touching, sketched art style that perfectly captures the exasperation of the daughter, the bewilderment of the husband, the woman’s quiet, aching loneliness. The game only lasts a minute or so, and requires no specialist knowledge to play. You should definitely all give it a go.

From a technical viewpoint, Gamer Mom is dazzling, both a coherent argument for the merits of the indie production route, and for the strengths of the medium in general. In struggling to find ways to interest your family, meeting walls of anger, amusement and indifference at every turn, you-the-player are made to understand and empathise with the plight of you-the-character. You’re not viewing this woman’s world from the outside, you’re experiencing it from within, actually living it. You feel for the woman because you have been made to walk a mile in her shoes. This is something games do better than any other form of art.

And it’s the kind of personal, heartfelt game that only really the independent sphere of game design seems able to foster. When a title costs sixty-bazillion bucks to make, and will bankrupt the studio if it doesn’t make back those costs, no one involved can afford to take risks. You figure out what your audience is most likely to spend their money on, and then you give it to them, in a slick, polished, loud, gauche package. This keeps studios afloat. It doesn’t, however, produce much of worth.

Because worth precisely is taking risks. It’s telling a story that is important to only you, that makes you squirm, that burns inside you and thumps on your chest to get out. What is worthwhile today, and always has been worthwhile, is having something to say. And having something to say is risky. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be exciting.

So the Gamer Moms of the world are vitally important. Kids can think of something to say, knock a cheap game together, then whack it up on the internet for everyone in the world to play, to judge, to hopefully connect with.

And I connected with Gamer Mom hard. It reminded me of similar conversations I’ve had in my past — and still, sadly, have today –, trying and failing to reconcile my internal world with the external world of my family and friends. Gamers will likely be familiar with this. But I think it’s more universal than that. We all, at times, find it difficult to connect with others, to show people what we are like inside, to be known, to be appreciated for who we truly are.

And here we come to the aspect of Gamer Mom that interests me the most, though I debated whether to discuss it here out of fears of handling it wrong, being insensitive. I think it is worth saying though.

Mordechai Buckman, the writer and designer of the game, has Asperger’s Syndrome. His website is a strange and beautiful marvel, a bizarrely ordered (by which I mean it is very ordered, only in a way that feels bizarre to my mind) collection of thoughts, transcripts of IM conversations about love, musings on game design, journal entries, self-therapy sessions. It is a highly personal attempt to understand life by someone our society deems to suffer from a “disorder”, though to my eyes appears to be getting along just as well as the rest of us.

Discovering the personality of the creative force behind Gamer Mom, the game starts to make sense in a new light. The nerdy hobby, the disconnect between the woman and her family, the bursts of excitement, the way a dialogue has to be intellectually plotted out, rather than instinctively navigated — this is a game that allows us the opportunity to live, for a short time, as an autistic person.

What a blast. How vital. I’ve seen some commenters arguing that the protagonist of Gamer Mom is entirely unsympathetic, that in ignoring her husband’s desire to work to support the family, in steamrolling over her daughter’s likes in favour of her own, it is she who is the villain, she who needs to adjust her priorities to allow for a happy home life.

This is, I think, missing the point. Mordechai never claims the woman is right or wrong — nor does he claim having Asperger’s is right or wrong. Simply that this is how he really is, these are obstacles he struggles with. Devoid of judgement, the game is honest and heartfelt, and I find it so beautiful because of this.

Gamer Mom tells me what someone else on this planet is like. It allows me to connect with them, two different minds sharing something across the ether, something that brings us closer, reminds us that the canvas of our lives is shared, and it is but the print scrawled across the canvas that changes.

In a letter written to a girl he had feelings for, bravely reposted on his website, Mordechai compares his attempts to understand people without Asperger’s as like trying to relate to “the behaviors of some (albeit intelligent) alien species.”

Well a lesson for all of us, taught to me by Mordechai’s wonderful game, is that even alien species share common ground. We have to exist in the same universe together, and how much more lovely that can be when we accept the divergences and asymmetry we find, when we respect it all has the same right to exist. This gives us a new perspective on others, and a new perspective on ourselves.

Gamer Mom is one of the most important indies produced this year. It is a call for games to hold meaning, to be genuine, to say something. Did I mention, rather exuberantly, that you should PLAY IT RIGHT NOW?

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Over the Precipice: An Essay on Journey

There’s this speech that always chokes me up, given to a graduating class at Kenyon College in America, by the writer David Foster Wallace. It’s a beautiful speech, infused with a kind of honest optimism that is less hope for the world to be a certain way, and more determination to see the world as it truly is, to see the terror and splendour that shines forth from every small moment of existence — every lonely evening at the supermarket, every petty encounter with motorists on the drive home from work.

That Wallace, three years after the speech was given, succumbed to the demons of depression he had battled his whole adult life, killing himself in 2008, in no way invalidates his message. Rather, it charges it with even more urgency, even more pathos. There are dark times ahead for all of us, he seems to say — work hard to love and to feel, while you still can.

Anyway, Wallace opened his speech with a joke about fish, and it’s this joke I’d like pilfer now, respectfully, as an opening for this essay.

There are these two young fish, so the joke goes, just swimming along, slacking off. They see an older fish in the distance, swimming towards them from the opposite direction. As the older fish passes, he waves his fin at the youngsters and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a way, in silence, then finally one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is ‘water’?”

Now, that is a philosophical joke, which means partly that it’s not funny, but also that its profundity is revealed gradually, the deeper you consider it. The point is that, while it is easy for us to see water for what it is — as outsiders looking in — for the fish it is always there, and thus very hard to be aware of.

This is a message worth keeping in mind when thinking about Journey, the latest release from Thatgamecompany, developers of the zen-like Cloud, Flow and Flower. Journey is a remarkable videogame, a work of art that commentators across the spectrum of gaming have found much to ponder within.

For me, Journey is about the only thing that art worth any goddamn can ever be about, which is what it is we’re all doing here. Journey is about truth, about base reality, about this experience of being itself we so often ignore. It is a call to look around us and remember that, as David Foster Wallace puts it: “This is water. This is water.”

We humans like to think we’re pretty hot shit. We stand, like the figure in that screenshot up there, overlooking our kingdoms, lords of all we survey. We are intellectual beings, gods on Earth; we have split the atom, put man on the moon, invented squeezable jam. We have mastered chaos.

And yet we trudge onwards under a shadow. There is a great shape towering over us, and it is brought closer with every step. We are on a fixed path, ushered forwards, and there can be no escape. We stand upon a precipice, waiting for the moment we will be tipped off. And then … Who knows? For all our nuclear reactors and space shuttles and tubed-jams, we have no clue what will happen when we take the final fall. Our arrogance is really a mask for fear, for the truth of our situation, which is that we are but insignificant flames, blazing once in an endless void, soon to be extinguished forever.

There is, certainly, a sense of this evident within Journey. Its tale of an enigmatic robed figure travelling through a vast desert towards a distant mountain can be read as a treatise on death, a declaration of the inconsequentiality of man’s power and knowledge when measured against the vastness of the cosmos. We are tiny specks scuttling across a universe that feels nothing but cold indifference to our plight. We are alone, and we will all die.

The thing is, while Journey might present us with these facts, the conclusions it arrives at are far from nihilistic. In the vigour and exuberance engendered through traversing its undulating sands, you feel not despair at your insignificance, but liberation. The treatise on death is transformed into a treatise on life. And not life as opposed to death, but life including death.

Because the real truth of our situation is not that we are standing on a precipice, waiting to fall, but that we are falling already, and haven’t yet hit the ground. Rather than peering down into a dark unknown, we are actually in this dark unknown right now. The dark unknown is, at our most fundamental level, us.

It hardly matters that we don’t know what will happen when we die, because we don’t even know what will happen when we live. We don’t even know what we mean when we say “know”.

“The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

These wry, wise old words come from the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, a screed regarding the Tao, or hidden flow, of the universe. It’s telling that the lines, among the most penetrating — and most quoted — in philosophical discourse, comprise a negative statement — telling us what is not, rather than what is. In much of Taoist (and subsequent Zen) thought, the assumption is that awareness of base reality — and thus liberation, enlightenment — is not something that can be intellectually arrived at, but a fundamental truth of existence that we simply have to stop trying to attain, and remember is here, right now, for us all to experience.

We don’t often think like this in the West. Our busy, fearful, left-hemisphere dominated minds have a hard time relinquishing control and placing faith in a more natural, less forced intelligence. A Zen master would remind us that a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, while our great thinkers tie themselves in knots wanting written instructions how to look from the finger to the moon, how eyes switch targets, how light is converted into electro-chemical impulses, and how that happens, and how that happens.

We believe it is possible to “know” everything, and we do so erroneously. For what we mean by “knowing” is really just grouping, ordering, filing away. To know a thing is to delineate it, to demarcate its boundaries, its opposites, to cut it away from the rest of the world so it may be observed. In doing so we build complex maps of the relationships between things, yet we say nothing of the things themselves. You cannot demarcate that which has no opposite. To try is to confuse the map with the territory.

I still remember this faux intellectual punk I used to know, who once sneered, “Everyone gets so soppy about love, without realising it’s just a chemical reaction in the brain that means nothing.” The kid thought that because he could classify love, he could explain it away! He didn’t recognise that the whole universe is a chemical reaction — if viewed through the framework of chemistry. Love, or fear, anxiety, joy, are what chemistry feels like from the inside. We are a chemical reaction experiencing itself! To borrow again from the Tao Te Ching, “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.”

This isn’t, however, to say that the Western mind is worse at perceiving truth than the Eastern mind. For where our intellectual discourse fails, our art provides answers. Art is a way of presenting truth as honestly as possible, a kind of meditation — both in the creation and the contemplation — that allows us to see deeply into things as they really are. Whether staring at a lapis lazuli pendant from ancient Mesopotamia, vibrant with preternatural colour, or feeling a creeping dread at the hellish rabbit visions conjured onto film by David Lynch, or exploring the simulated realms of a modern videogame, art lets us step back and refocus on what is, reminds us of the incomprehensibility of this teeming mass of reality blossoming each moment around us, and within us.

And when we do so we are transformed. We no longer bustle along the forest path, eyes down, heads busy with What Jason Said Yesterday, or Why Sarah is Such a Cow — but instead look up, and remember that we are, at this very moment, in paradise, and we better appreciate it now, before it is gone for good.

This is what Journey does for me. It is, I think, an antidote to the suffering we feel when we misjudge our place on Earth. Sometimes we trudge up dunes, and the going is tough. Sometimes we surf and sail downhill, and we feel borne on the wind. Such is life.

There is a mountain towering over us, the engulfing light at its peak drawing closer with each step. But this mountain need not be a spectre. It can instead be a warden — a lighthouse guiding us home, waiting patiently for our return. We soar up its slopes, our hearts glad. We are tiny, we are empty, we know nothing — and how very beautiful that ultimate truth is. For when we are empty of ourselves we can let everything else in, and it is then when we find our real selves, not apart from the universe, but a part of it, growing out of it, growing back into it.

And we are far from alone. Look at all these other travellers around us, pilgrims on the same journey. When we meet others in Journey, we no longer care about measuring them, comparing them, judging them. We don’t wish to manipulate them, nor do we fear being manipulated by them. We see them for who they truly are, empty as well, and we can enjoy simply existing with them, being with them, as we once did as children in that half-forgotten world of dreams we used to inhabit.

There we stand, together, on the precipice of all things — two tiny hearts beating in unison against the drone of an endless cosmos. What is there to do but sing? So we sing.

And, somewhere down there, over the precipice of all things, the endless cosmos sings back.

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