Fri. July 13
“For years, I’ve lived a double life,” reads the script of a classic video game advertisement for Sony’s Playstation. “In the day, I do my job. I ride the bus, roll up my sleeves with the hoi polloi. But at night, I live a life of exhilaration, of missed heartbeats and adrenalin. And, if the truth be known, a life of dubious virtue. I won’t deny it I’ve been engaged in violence, even indulged in it. I’ve maimed and killed adversaries, and not merely in self-defense. I’ve exhibited disregard for life, limb and property, and savored every moment. You may not think it, to look at me, but I have commanded armies and conquered worlds. And though in achieving these things I’ve set morality aside, I have no regrets. For though I’ve led a double life, at least I can say: I’ve lived.”
These world conquerors are not so easy to spot. You may work with one for years and not even know it. A couple years ago, I was sitting in the Baltimore-Washington airport at around 6 AM, listening to Max and his friend discussing the importance of engineering in times of war. They could’ve been any two colleagues headed for a weekend trip, waiting for an early flight to the Chicago hub, bleary eyed in jeans and polo shirts with coffee in hand. Their conversation was serious, forming a plan of strategic action with a result tree of many branches, the sort of jargon-heavy discussion far too complex and layered to attract any curious technologically-unaware eavesdroppers.
Yet after listening for a few seconds, it became clear that their brand of engineering involved a very obscure branch indeed. They were focused particularly on something called a Mind Amplification Dish, a product in its early stages and therefore fraught with problems, and can only be used at most every ten minutes. There was much talk of materials and requirements, specs and schematics, and also a new robot butler involved, named Jeeves, which they found clichéd but charming. The conversation moved to user interfaces, patches, and opinions on the value of leatherworking. They were, of course, discussing a World of Warcraft expansion.
The escapism they engage in reminds me of the classic Kierkegaardian novel The Moviegoer, where Walker Percy’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, speaks of his own outlet:
“In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies… Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: ‘Where Happiness Costs So Little.’ The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments of their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.”
A great many gamers could say the same about moments they’ve shared with friends or experienced alone, childhood dreams they’ve made real in places where “happiness costs so little.” Is that such a bad thing? Is there anything wrong with the realm these escapists inhabit–with setting aside time to engage in an imaginary world and, increasingly, the community that comes with it? Is it any different than Bolling sitting in the movies instead of confronting the world outside? Escapism can, in its own way, be enlightening and cathartic.
Perhaps this escapism is only a bad thing if that imaginary world comes to dominate one’s life to the detriment of yourself and those around you. If you neglect the responsibility you have to seek the right path for how you will live in this real world, the consequences can be very real. Here, you cannot simply follow the path the designers have set for you–you have to choose it for yourself. And here, there is no robot butler. Yet.