It’s a Man Ray kind of sky

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Gamers have such a skill for self-loathing that I sometimes think it’s some kind of Xbox achievement. I see this in game writing all the time.

After the jump, gamers should grow some stones

A recent post on No High Scores about the cancellation of a social media baking game (yes) managed to include references to “the average Joe Slackjaw” when talking about “mainstream gamers” and “pasty-faced basements dwellers” when talking about, well, actual gamers. Yeah, I get that the pasty-faced comment was about how most gamers are perceived by society. But that’s exactly my whole point. Why do you care? What’s more, this particular post couples self-loathing with a dismissal of average people who aren’t so wrapped up in what games are cool to play. If you were ok with yourself, would it really matter so much?

What if you just got over it, along with the pasty-faced people who quit compromising and got a whole lot less pasty?

How great would it be if people who played games were able to do things so well that they didn’t need to answer for their game playing?

People often ask how wargamers justify their fascination with playing games about mass destruction. The second-best argument I’ve heard is that because this interest stems from a fascination with history, gamers are much more likely to know the context and consequences of unpleasant historical events better than most people, thus giving them a better understanding of the world and the insight to try and prevent such things in the future.

The best argument I’ve heard is who cares, because if you don’t like it, you’re free to go to hell.

That’s the answer I wish more gamers would adopt, or at least those gamers who are really concerned about games being taken seriously as mainstream entertainment. I hate both of those words. For this piece, I asked some people at work if they “take movies seriously as mainstream entertainment.” They weren’t sure what I was asking. The best answer I got was, “Uh, I watch movies all the time.” Perfect. I think at some point, gamers would love that question to be as nonsensical to people, only with the word “games” in there.

But for some reason, gamers seem to keep shooting themselves in the controller. The infantilization of gaming, far from liberating games from the entertainment ghetto, seems to be trying to trap them there as long as possible. Our most recent albatross is Jane McGonigal, a game designer who seems to be trying to use academics as an elaborate psychological justification for the fact that she likes playing games. Her current book (yes, I’ve read it) was well addressed by Heather Chaplin at Slate, who pointed out that assigning juvenile names to everyday tasks as a substitute for coping skills for the sake of “gaming” makes games seems more infantile, not less.

Do adults really need to pretend they’re superheroes on secret missions to have meaning in their lives? Feel free to use advanced gaming logic to deduce a reasonable answer.

Ian Bogost wrote a book called Persuasive Games. Unlike McGonigal, Bogost isn’t being or trying to appear stupid in order to connect with his audience. Ian’s hope is that by making games about the consequences of dietary choices, people will become more aware of the consequences of their dietary choices. That’s a reasonable assumption, if by people you mean nobody. Nobody happens to be a specific guy I know who is obsessed with re-enacting and living in the imaginative space populated by meat processing. The rest of the people who might play that game have an agenda, and games are inimical to agendas. As a guy with about five thousand agendas, you gotta take my word on that.

Games are about imagination, which is why they attract introverted, contemplative people who are more likely to take comfort in a fully realized alternate world than they are to risk a lot of money on the European debt crisis. If you think that by saying that, I am making some kind of value judgment, you’re already predisposed to discount the value of imagination. You can’t support games by doing that.

Last year, I was saddened to read about the death of one of the members of the Quarter to Three forums. His name was Scott McKinnon. I haven’t been able to participate in the forums regularly for many years, and as such never got a chance to read Scott’s posts or otherwise interact with him. That’s my loss.

Scott was a guy who hadn’t gone to college at the traditional age, and when he finally did, he was guided by the fact that he knew exactly what he wanted to study, and that was photography. It’s the kind of focus so few people seem to have when they graduate from high school, but in a podcast on Quarter to Three, Scott made it clear that it took him a long time to get to where he could make a post on his personal blog like this:

Monday, September 27, 2010
It is 2:13 am and I cannot sleep.

I have my first photography class in six hours.


That’s an amazing post, because that was me. During five years of working in investment banking, I became more and more certain that I wanted to do something else. I would stand in bookstores and stare at organic chemistry and biology textbooks. It was knowledge I wanted, but didn’t have. I read a lot of popular science on my own, and had done so for a long time. But as a non-science major in college, I didn’t know how to bridge the gap and move from being an outsider to actually participating in and contributing to that side of the curtain.

But just like Scott and his pinball, I had my own distractions. Which is a bad word, because the negative connotations of that word don’t apply. I can’t imagine finishing my post-bacc studies and going to medical school without the “distraction” of games, especially Heroes of Might & Magic II, Jagged Alliance, the original Warcraft RTS, Command & Conquer, Master of Orion, X-COM, and any number of other games from the early- to mid-nineties. Like television, movies, books, or an extended hit from a water bong, games can take up valuable time when they become unhealthy escapes from whatever problems people are trying to avoid. As healthy distractions, they give you an outlet for the part of your mind that needs to occasionally go elsewhere. The key is to always have your organic chemistry homework done.

In that way, Scott McKinnon was my hero.

A few years ago, I wrote an article under a pseudonym that anecdotally investigated the connection between video gaming and surgical skills, and even more anecdotally investigated my disdain for that whole line of thought. I followed it up with another pseudonymed article, which The Escapist for some reason chose as one of its Best of 2009 without actually telling me. But the points for me are the same, which is that games as such don’t teach you anything, so if you’re following that blind alley to gaming acceptance, come on back. That’s a nowhere road. As far as I’m concerned, I play games, and oh yeah I do this other stuff. It happens to be brain surgery, but whatever. Scott McKinnon was going to be a photographer. From what I saw of his website, it looks like he was going to be a spectacular one. I have tremendous respect for anyone who does something well, especially if that person loves doing it. We’ve moved on from the whole doctor-lawyer-engineer paradigm that someone in the 1950s decided was the only way to be successful in life. Here’s a guy who wrote a song that went viral, tours with his band, and draws comics. Sounds fantastic because I’ll bet it is.

But I see so many intelligent people compromise. They take jobs they didn’t necessarily plan on, and before they know it they’re doing something that only marginally interests them, because a man’s gotta eat and hey, I can play games when I’m off work. And all of a sudden life is about escaping what you do, instead of what you do being an escape from mediocrity.

Because loving something that you do well is the best kind of success.

Which brings me back to Scott McKinnon and his love of gaming and photography. If you haven’t listened to his podcast, you need to. Scott talked about his life experience so freely, in a way that’s only possible if you have a lot of insight into what you’ve gone through and where you plan to go next. What you obviously don’t get from the podcast is that he had profound problems which led him to take his own life. Which is shocking to me in a way, because the guy who was able to go through some incredible harassment over pinball, of all things, and move on and be able to talk about it so insightfully made me think he had some very developed coping skills. Had he gone further, I’m sure his success at photography would have helped him even more.

Oh that’s what this is, eh? A lecture. I’m telling you to grow up and do something and don’t be ashamed of games. I wish it were that easy.

I was at a board review course recently where we had basically eleven days of nonstop neurosurgery review. I’m talking 12 or 13 hours a day of lectures on every conceivable neurosurgery topic. The breaks were few and far between, and when we did get a break, I felt like I needed to do something, anything, other than neurosurgery for a few minutes. But despite the fact that I was out of town at a review course for which I had paid a hefty tuition, and the course was for my benefit, and no patients were at risk, and the break time was my own, I just couldn’t bring myself to break out Ascension on the iPhone. Why should I care? Can’t I play for ten minutes before the next three hours of lectures start? People are getting coffee and biscuits, why can’t I play Ascension?

I don’t have a good answer.

I just listened to a great podcast with the designer of Ascension, Justin Gary. He’s obviously a smart guy with a lot of ideas, mostly about gaming. You can tell just from listening to him that he’s tremendously bright, and would likely do well at whatever he decided to do. He went to NYU Law School for a year, decided he would rather be a game designer, and moved on. I think that’s a great idea. He sounds happy doing what he does, and has designed a successful game that a lot of people enjoy. I’ll bet he’d have no problem busting out a game of it wherever, whenever.

In a way, I feel like I let Scott McKinnon down.